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Maryland Aftermath: The Illusion of Progress

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USF hung tight with Maryland and at least appeared to take a step forward. We won't know for sure until next week.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

To even begin analyzing USF's 24-17 loss to Maryland on Saturday is to be confused as hell. The easy narrative is that the Terps kept the Bulls in the game with six turnovers, but that takes away from the fact USF's offense went shot-for-shot with the more much impressive Maryland attack for most of the day-- which is to say that they both played pretty poorly, and both teams really shot themselves in the foot equally in this one. The Bulls and Terps put up similar first down and yardage numbers, and USF matched Maryland's turnovers with a botched field goal snap, a strange rainbow of an interception by Steven Bench, and the decisive blocked punt. And they were without their best quarterback and wide receiver. This could have been a Bulls win as easily as it could have been a 20-point Maryland blowout, but instead the bad luck and sloppy play more or less evened out and it fell somewhere in the middle.

So let's chalk the game up for what it was: the Terps played a little bit better than the Bulls did, and made enough plays down the stretch to come out on top. When you look at it like that, it doesn't seem that bad. Maryland is a pretty good team with a lot of potential-- they're currently at 49th and 54th in the F/+ and Sagarin ratings, respectively, and USF damn near came away with their most impressive victory in a long time. The Bulls' defense really stepped up to the task of shutting down a Maryland offense littered with blue-chippers, and their own offense actually settled into a nice groove for a while toward the end of the first half. But in a game this wacky, it's hard to draw any solid conclusions, so we're going to have to settle for six days of waiting and wondering if the Bulls bring the same kind of fight to NC State that they brought to the Terps yesterday.

Observations:

- The Bulls' black hole at quarterback isn't quite as huge and terrifying as it was last season, but it's still definitely a black hole. Bench started the game 0-6, then went on a nice 13-24 run before going 1 for 6 with an interception in the decisive fourth quarter. That's not awful, but it's certainly not good enough to win many games. Taggart saved us any drama in his postgame press conference, saying that Mike White would still be out next week and that Bench would be the starter against NC State. Fans calling for Quinton Flowers will undoubtedly be disappointed by Taggart's comments on the true freshman, in which he basically said that Flowers would compete with walk-on Evan Wilson for the backup spot. That doesn't sound like a quarterback who's ready to start quite yet.

- The defense really came to play today, which was refreshing to see after last week's performance. They're not nearly as bad as they looked against Western Carolina and not nearly as good as they looked yesterday-- forcing six turnovers tends to inflate stats a bit-- but they never stopped playing hard and singlehandedly kept the Bulls in the game in the fourth quarter. Even more importantly, they did a good job of holding Maryland's monstrous receivers in check after a couple early lapses. Going up against a pair of five-star wideouts is a good measuring stick for a young, athletic secondary, and for the most part they held up really nicely.

- I saw a few people bringing up Marlon Mack's 22 carries for 73 yards as if he had a bad day. That's silly. The USF offensive line was not getting a consistent push against Maryland's D-line, and Marlon had to make several plays by himself for the second straight week. It's not as easy to do that against Maryland as it is Western Carolina, but he did a fine job overall considering he didn't get much help.

- Paul Wulff called a pretty good first half, all things considered. Maryland was stacking the box to stop Mack, and after it became clear that USF wasn't going to win the game by running the ball, he pretty much abandoned running on standard downs. Not only did this throw the Terps' defense off a bit, it helped Bench settle down by allowing him to pass without facing extra guys blitzing. Still... he got awfully conservative as soon as the Bulls entered the red zone. He called runs twice on third down inside the 20, and while I get that you don't want Bench turning it over and you have a near-automatic kicker, your quarterback is going to need to make those throws eventually. If not now, then when?

- I will learn how to long snap in the next week if it continues to be a problem. Seriously, the issues on special teams yesterday were inexcusable and probably cost the Bulls the game. Having such a young team is like playing Football Problems Whac-a-Mole-- you get rid of one issue, and another pops up next week. C'est la vie.

- Remember the Houston game last season? We all thought the Bulls had finally turned a corner in a losing effort, then they came out flat and lost to a terrible Memphis team. Well, USF has an honest-to-God chance to do some damage in their next two games if they play like they did yesterday. Next week's opponent, NC State, has struggled in wins against Georgia Southern and Old Dominion, while UConn got blasted by BYU and squeaked past Stony Brook yesterday. The Bulls very well may have taken a big step forward against the Terps, but it's irrelevant unless they can solidify the gains next week. Here's hoping.