USF stayed undefeated and put themselves in the conversation for their first AP Top 25 ranking since 2011 with a 45-20 pasting of the Syracuse Orange on Saturday at the Carrier Dome.
Despite a comedy of errors on both sides of the ball in the first quarter, USF settled down and turned in a dominant performance both offensively and defensively over the last 45 minutes.
“It was good to see our guys fight back,” said Willie Taggart, who has won 10 of his last 12 games. “All week long I talked to our guys about this game about how there was gonna be adversity in this game. You just felt it all week, it was gonna be one of those games, especially how Syracuse played the week before. You knew they were gonna come out and play hard.”
“I told our guys that we're gonna face some adversity in this game. That's something I wanted to see, how this 2016 team responds to adversity, because that's something we hadn't seen yet. I told 'em when it comes we're not gonna flinch, we're gonna look it in the eye and say 'bring it on.' Sure enough, we're down (17-0), no one panicked or anything. Guys just said, 'Let's go. We all right. We're gonna be fine. ...' It was great to see our guys respond to it."
On defense, USF conceded 214 yards in the first quarter, an average of 6.5 yards per play. But after that, Syracuse gained only 335 yards the rest of the game. The yards per play dropped to 4.6, and the Bulls forced three turnovers. The Orange totaled 549 yards of offense, but it took 105 plays for them to get there, an ACC record and also the most plays a USF opponent has ever run in a game.
“When we started this game, it kind of had that feel of Maryland last year,” said senior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who led all Bulls with 13 tackles. “We kind of took those guys lightly, people were patting us on the back and telling us, 'Oh, USF's back, USF's this, USF's that.' We kind of came out really flat and that was something we couldn't do. So yeah, I was a little ticked off, probably showed it a little bit.
“I was on the sideline a little animated, but I feel like it helped us. It got the guys going and it's kind of what needed to be said, and I said it and went with it."
The Bulls were mass substituting to help deal with the tempo, looking like a hockey team making a line change along the front four of their base 4-2-5 defense.
"Yeah, they were going kind of fast,” said defensive tackle Deadrin Senat, who led all linemen with 10 tackles. “We had a scheme at the outset: once they had a sub, we broke him off... We had a great scheme. We just had to believe in the coaches, believe in what (defensive coordinator Raymond) Woodie was calling, believe in what (defensive line coach Eric) Mathies was telling us, and we had to execute.”
Offensively the Bulls finally found their footing on the last play of the first quarter, a 40-yard scamper by Marlon Mack that included a beautiful block by Marquez Valdes-Scantling to spring him down the right side.
The offense never looked back, running off four consecutive touchdowns in the second quarter and gaining 216 yards from scrimmage. Rodney Adams finished the carryover drive with a 27-yard TD catch and run, and a five-play, 47-yard drive that featured a Quinton Flowers 15-yard scramble up the gut to the Syracuse two-yard line. Marlon Mack carried it to paydirt on the next play for the first of his two scores on the day.
Mack turned provider on the next drive with a highlight-reel block to spring Adams on a jet sweep left for a nine-yard rushing TD. Adams and Flowers combined to finish the last drive before the half, linking up on a 31-yard pass from midfield followed by a 19-yard sweep right on the next play to give the Bulls a multi-score cushion at 28-17.
“It was a slow start, but we just had to... just calm down, and just play football like we normally do,” said Adams, who finished with 154 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. “We calmed down, and things started going our way."
Mack needed just nine carries to run for 115 yards. Most of those came on his 40-yard carry at the end of the 1st, and his death blow 52-yard TD on 4th and 1 to put the Bulls up 35-20 with under a minute left in the third quarter. Flowers and Mack meshed for a zone read and the entire Syracuse defense sold out to their left, so Mack cut it back to his left and was basically unencumbered to the end zone.
"Nobody actually touched me. The D shot out inside, and I saw that corner, that last man running over to the right, and I just knew after that they weren’t touching me."
Flowers finished 12-for-24 passing for 183 yards, and added 11 carries for 57 yards. Flowers led a turnover-free performance by the offense for the second straight game.
The Bulls survived their trap game on the road against an ACC opponent, and now will face the Florida State Seminoles at noon on Saturday at a likely sold-out Raymond James Stadium. The broadcast will be on ABC beginning at 12 p.m.