TAMPA – The University of South Florida Bulls, winless and desperate, are searching for positives. Coach Willie Taggart praised his team’s late effort on Saturday afternoon, saying they never quit during the fourth quarter.
But that first quarter?
The No. 15-ranked Miami Hurricanes blitzed the Bulls with long touchdown drives on their first three possessions, then cruised to a 49-21 victory at Raymond James Stadium.
According to the Tampa Sports Authority, actual attendance was 32,977 (nearly 15,000 fewer than the tickets distributed).
USF (0-4) has lost 13 of its past 14 games, dating to last season. UM is 4-0 for the first time since 2004, its initial ACC season.
USF’s defense, which employed four true freshmen at times, surrendered 251 yards in the first quarter (the most of any quarter in USF’s 17-season football history). By halftime, UM had 411 yards and led 35-7.
The final margin, still overwhelming, was somewhat deceptive. The Hurricanes left plenty of points on the field, twice losing fumbles inside USF’s 5-yard line, missing a 23-yard field-goal attempt and throwing an interception at USF’s 4.
“Until we get to where we want to be, we’re going to have to play perfect football to compete with a team like Miami,’’ USF coach Willie Taggart said.
Perfect football, this was not.
But it started pretty well.
After spotting UM a touchdown on the opening possession, the Bulls answered with a spotless five-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped by a 3-yard run from senior Marcus Shaw, who sparked things with a 44-yard scamper. Included was an opening-play 17-yard play-action pass from sophomore quarterback Steven Bench, the Penn State transfer making his first start, to Chris Dunkley.
It was 7-7. Then came instant deflation when Duke Johnson scored on a 101-yard kickoff return. It was called back by a holding penalty, though, and USF had the Hurricanes pinned at their 9-yard line.
No problem for UM.
It needed only six plays to cover the 91 yards — Stephen Morris found Herb Waters for a 19-yard touchdown — and the race to 42 consecutive points was on.
UM compiled 540 yards overall, the sixth-highest total given up by a USF defense. It included 375 yards passing (from three different quarterbacks). The Hurricanes had plays of 55, 34, 33, 31 and 54 yards.
“It’s back to the drawing board,’’ USF senior defensive end Julius Forte said. “We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds. But you can’t take anything away from Miami.
“They did a lot of things well, but we did a lot of things we shouldn’t have done. We got out-gapped. We were missing tackles. I think our young players were filling in where they needed to. Every now and then, a young player makes a really good play for us, but they might miss a play. You’ve got to take the good with the bad when you’re playing with young fellas. Hopefully, it’s more good than bad.’’
Taggart said the breakdowns were especially frustrating because they occurred on plays that were anticipated.
“We know they’re a big-play team, a lot of play action on first and second down, but we still didn’t do what we’re supposed to do, and we let guys get behind us,’’ Taggart said.
Offensively, outside of the first drive, it was another exercise in frustration.
Shaw excelled with 20 carries for 127 yards (his third 100-yard rushing game). But Bench labored behind poor protection, finishing 13-of-27 for 189 yards. He had one touchdown, a 16-yard fourth-down pass to Derrick Hopkins with two seconds remaining. But he also was sacked five times, including once in the end zone, where his lost fumble produced a touchdown for UM’s Jimmy Gaines.
“Not good enough,’’ Bench said. “The scoreboard says that. The turnovers say that. I’ve got to play better. We’ve all got to play better.’’
Taggart, taking accountability, said he and his staff must coach better. He does not want to hear about any potential failings from previous regimes.
“Hell, yeah, I believe in myself,’’ said Taggart, when asked about his confidence in USF’s direction. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in myself. Every win, every loss, everything is on me. It’s on me to get it corrected, and we’re going to get it corrected.
“We’re not to the point where we can point the blame on anyone else. It’s all on me. I’m the head coach. We’ve got to get it corrected and we will.’’