USF Football (2-2, 1-0 AAC) opened up their 2014 American Conference campaign with an impressive defensive performance over an oft-inept Connecticut (1-3, 0-1) in a 17-14 win on a rainy Friday night at Raymond James Stadium.
Marlon Mack was the Bulls star from the backfield, picking up 116 yards and a rushing touchdown on 31 grueling carries. The USF defense also put in their best performance of 2014, holding the Huskies to just 70 yards of total offense with under two minutes left to play before a late UConn touchdown drive.
UConn's first possession crash landed when a Chris Dunkley corner blitz of Huskies quarterback Chandler Whitmer's blind side turned into a sack/fumble/scoop for Dunkley. It left the Bulls with just 15 yards to paydirt, and four Marlon Mack carries later the Bulls lit up the scoreboard before their opponent for the first time in 2014.
UConn proceeded to UConn all over themselves with their second possession as well (two penalties, three-and-out), and after a punt the Bulls took over at their own 20. That started a 10-play, 80 yard drive that included two big play catches by Rodney Adams: a 24-yarder down the seam and a 30-yarder over the middle for a touchdown.
That TD also came on a pretty gutsy go-for-it 4th and 10 from the UConn 30. "It was wet, and we didn't think we could kick from that far," head coach Willie Taggart said after the game. "I told them we believed in them. It was great that they executed."
With 3:18 remaining in the first quarter and the home team with a 14-0 lead, it looked like a blowout might be forthcoming. And then it got ugly.
A puntactular rest of the first half ensued, with both teams trading field position like pogs. Seven straight possessions ended in punts, and no team gained more than 15 yards when they had the ball. The Bulls seemed content to pound the ball into the line and kick it away to the Huskies, who seemed happy to simply not turn it over and just kick it right back.
This was a game that looked straight out of the depression. All that was missing were leather helmets, coaches chain smoking on the sidelines, and lots of unironic misogyny.
With just seconds left in the first half, Bulls quarterback Mike White hit Adams in the hands on a sideline route with less than 12 seconds remaining, but Adams had it bounce off his shoulder, and Byron Jones picked off the rebound and ran it 70 yards to undeservedly cut the USF lead to 14-7. It's a catch Adams needs to make, one of many miscues by wide-open Bulls receivers on the night.
The second half saw USF open with a 10 play, 41-yard drive that chewed almost seven minutes off the clock. It was the kind of offense Taggart wants to run: seven runs with lots of power to both sides of the line. But a hold on Quinterrius Eatmon gave the Bulls a 1st and 20 that slowed the momentum.
UConn was simply unable to get off the mat. Whitmer was symbolic of the New Englanders ineptitude, managing just 2-6 passing for 13 yards until the last drive of the game. The Huskies stable of four running backs eeked out only 88 yards on 24 carries all night long.
A 19-yard USF field goal with 6:03 to play gave the Bulls a 17-7 lead, and a two score advantage late certainly seemed insurmountable for an overmatched road team. But the infamous USF prevent defense came back to haunt towards the end. After dominating the Huskies all night, defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan's unit only rushed three while dropping eight defenders into coverage on the Huskies last drive.
The next four plays were all completed passes, and UConn picked up 75 yards and a Geremy Davis TD to cut the lead to 17-14 with just 1:19 to play. "They were ticked that they scored late in the game, and they should be," said Taggart afterwards. "Let's make sure we stay locked into what we're doing."
But as you would expect in a game this ugly, UConn proceeded to jump offsides on their attempted onsides kick, and without a timeout to their name the game was over.
"Good win for our football team. Really proud of our guys how they found a way to win," Taggart said. "I was really happy with the passion that we played with."
Mattias Ciabatti also shined for the Bulls on the national stage of ESPN on a Friday night. His six punts averaged 41.3 yards including a 61-yard bomb, with five of those kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. "Ciabatti was unbelieveable," said Taggart. "He showed everyone what he's capable of doing in that condition. He worked on a certain way of punting the ball to keep it inside the five."
The Bulls face what might be their stiffest test of 2014. #18 Wisconsin is next Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.