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ECU Aftermath: The Specter of Expectations

USF’s win on Saturday was remarkably unsatisfying, but let’s stop and appreciate that fact.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at South Florida
“I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Back in August, SB Nation’s wonderful Ohio State site Land-Grant Holy Land published a perfectly nice article titled “It’s OK to Enjoy Ohio State Football Again.” This piece referred to the Buckeyes’ 2015 season as a “long, hard slog”— a season, mind you, in which the Buckeyes went 12-1 and came within a field goal of a successful national title defense. When I first stumbled upon the headline of that piece, I issued a mental groan that could probably be heard twelve galaxies away— like, I’m sorry that losing one frickin’ game, taking a one-year hiatus from the national title game, and boasting perhaps the most talented coach and roster in college football was so hard on you.

After the ECU game this weekend, I think I’ve begun to understand what this piece was talking about. The Bulls weren’t awful on Saturday; in fact, they played quite well on paper. They racked up 556 yards on offense, running for a tremendous 306, held an explosive ECU attack to 22 points, and outgained the Pirates substantially— 7.8 to 5.2— in football’s most useful stat, yards per play. By most measures, this was a strong USF performance that, even when hamstrung by some conservative playcalling late and far too many penalties, the Bulls were able to turn into a comfortable win.

And yet... it didn’t feel very comfortable, did it? Saturday afternoon’s menagerie of mental errors, iffy defense, and a quarter-filled stadium wasn’t just unsatisfying; it flew all the way to downright distasteful after the game was punctuated by an odd final drive in which the Bulls tried to tack on a garbage time touchdown, and a very tense handshake between Willie Taggart and Scottie Montgomery. It was a win, sure, and not a bad one, but it took a solid thirty minutes to shower off the stench of disappointment afterwards.

As challenging as it might be, take a step back with me: the Bulls played one of their worst games of the season this weekend, and still managed to pull out a double-digit victory over an ECU squad that certainly isn’t a world-beater, but, lest we forget, beat 4-1 NC State earlier in the season and had the 2015 Bulls on the ropes in Greenville. If you offered this start to any USF fan at the end of last season— a 5-1 first half of the year with an unblemished conference record and every single win by 16 points or more— literally every single one would’ve taken it (except maybe a few frightening Twitter Demons, but we don’t talk about them).

So why did Saturday feel so gross? USF has been so good this season (seriously, apart from FSU and perhaps this game, they’ve been absolutely sublime) that combined with last season’s unbelievable finish, high preseason expectations, and the relative “meh”-ness of the AAC East, anything apart from an absolute trouncing of a mediocre conference opponent feels like an abject failure. There’s no better feeling in sports than winning when you’re not expecting it; that’s a large part of why the Bulls’ 2015 season was so blissfully thrilling. USF, though, has now won six straight conference games and is a sterling 12-3 in their last 15 contests. Only one of those wins has come by less than eight points. We’ve become accustomed to winning, and we’ve become accustomed to winning without really having to sweat about it.

This makes for a really fun experience as a fan, but it can also be rather unpleasant when you’ve adjusted your standard of success to a 25-point blowout. The Bulls are being haunted by the specter of expectations right now, and while it hasn’t showed in their play, it has in their fanbase— the resounding mindset among the USF faithful right now is less “What a great team! I can’t wait for the next game!” than “Please, Football Gods, let us get through the second half of this season without messing it all up.” I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to this— I suspect that years of long-suppressed trauma from quick starts and lame-duck finishes bubbling to the surface has something to do with this. With great power comes great responsibility, but also great pains in the rear. Every penalty feels like a punch to the gut; every point scored by the opposition feels like a personal insult when the only things that matter should be A) playing well and B) winning (the Bulls achieved at least 50% of these against ECU).

My advice is to do your best to separate the objective from the subjective. Objectively, USF’s victory on Saturday was flimsy and unimpressive; subjectively, it was another chapter in a long book of USF Stunting on Fools. This team has plenty of flaws— and plenty of them were on full display against the Pirates— but they might just turn out to be the best USF team of all time, and they’re certainly the most exciting. This could be a really, really special season if the Bulls can continue to improve and continue to ignore the looming ghost in the corner of the room, shouting “EVERY GAME IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOUR DREAMS TO DIE.” As fans, we can only help with the latter option, so let’s try our best to chip in.

* * *

Stray observations from Stunting On Fools, Chapter Twelve:

  • Quinton Flowers has been so wonderfully improved over the last couple of games after his tough outing against FSU. He’s hitting throws that he was missing earlier in the season, and he threw two absolute gems on Saturday: one long pass over the middle to Mitchell Wilcox that got the Bulls in scoring position in the first half, and the fateful touchdown pass to Rodney Adams when the game was on the line. As Quinton goes, this team goes.
  • If you still don’t believe that Flowers is a rare talent, check out his stats from his last 13 games (so, essentially a full season): 57% passing for 2,677 yards, 23/5 TD/INT; 1,129 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. That’s absolutely stunning, and will put you in All-America contention in some seasons.
  • It does help that USF has a fantastic receiving corps. At least four receivers on this team (Adams, Valdes-Scantling, Bronson, McCants) are capable of making highlight-reel catches, which can help turn some erratic throws from Flowers that would otherwise have been incompletions into positive gains. This is a privilege that hasn’t been afforded to a USF quarterback in quite some time, and we’re not even taking into account the receiving talents of D’Ernest Johnson and Elkanah Dillon.
  • More on that: I don’t think we’ve appreciated quite how good Rodney Adams is, or how vital he is to this team. A season after accounting for over 900 total yards and 10 touchdowns, he’s sitting at 516 total yards and eight touchdowns just shy of the halfway point of this season. Numbers don’t even do his impact justice— there were at least two occasions on Saturday where Adams hauled in a off-target throw from Flowers on a screen pass that left him facing the wrong way three or four yards behind the line of scrimmage... and he wound up picking up a decent chunk of yardage. For an offense like USF’s that can struggle if they get behind the chains, those sorts of plays are vital. Let’s not forget that he’s had two huge, essentially game-winning receptions against ECU in the last two seasons. Rodney Adams, Mr. Clutch and Destroyer of ECU Worlds.
  • Another under-appreciated player, D’Ernest Johnson, is finally getting his due thanks to Willie Taggart’s effusive praise and his performances in Darius Tice’s stead. Johnson is such an incredible weapon to have, and it’ll be fascinating seeing him get the lion’s share of carries next season (I’m assuming Marlon Mack declares for the NFL Draft, because he should).
  • The run defense is still really, really bad, and could really wind up being the Achilles heel of this team if they can’t tighten things up. The Bulls haven’t been necessarily gashed in the past two weeks, but Cincinnati and ECU are two of the worst rushing teams USF will play this season, and both had unprecedented success running against the Bulls’ defense. USF might skate by against UConn as well, but the looming duo of Temple and Navy (gulp) are likely licking their chops right now. That Temple-Navy-Memphis stretch is going to define USF’s season, for better or for worse, and it would be a lot easier for the Bulls if they didn’t have to put up 50 points in each game to win.
  • I heard a lot of complaints about the play calling, but honestly, I loved what USF did in the first half. I think this offense is much more effective when they force defenses to creep up and respect the run before trying to hit them over the top, plus the quick screens and draws help Quinton get in a bit of a rhythm. A couple times this season, I’ve felt that Willie Taggart was trying a bit too hard to force a consistent intermediate passing game on this offense. He didn’t do that on Saturday, and the Pirates had no answers for the Bulls in the first half. I will add that things got a little stagnant in the second half—some of the short passes and draws on third downs were a bit too conservative once ECU’s offense started gaining traction.
  • What did improve substantially were USF’s calls on fourth down. We talked last week about how Taggart needs to call a much more aggressive game if the offense is going to continue to be so far ahead of the defense. If you’re going to playing in shootouts every week, field position becomes much less important than leaving points on the board—and seriously, this offense has pretty decent odds of converting any down of four yards or less. Taggart seemed to understand that yesterday, and his offense rewarded him. In fact, the Bulls are a perfect seven-for-seven on fourth down conversions this season.
  • I really don’t get the decision to go for points on the final drive of the game, solely because of the injury risk. This team is so incredibly reliant on its stars on offense that it’s downright stupid to send them out for a drive that means absolutely nothing— if, God forbid, Quinton Flowers had gotten hurt on that last series, you’ve just blown up the season in exchange for a few meaningless reps. That was really dumb, and Willie Taggart shouldn’t do it again.
  • To those that think it was “bush league” or “classless”: I do not care.
  • Go to games. That attendance was embarrassing.