TAMPA — Whenever USF handed the ball to running back Jordan Cronkrite on Saturday night, a big play seemed close. The Bulls were just one block, one chip, one cut away.
"We knew it was coming," quarterback Blake Barnett said.
Finally, with 10:13 left, it came.
Cronkrite showed the kind of talent he flashed with the Gators to speed 80 yards for the winning score in the Bulls' 20-13 victory over East Carolina at Raymond James Stadium.
"I was just trying to give my team a lift," said Cronkrite, who transferred from Florida before the 2017 season. "We weren't really clicking on offense like we really needed."
No, the Bulls (4-0, 1-0 AAC) were not.
ECU (1-2, 0-1) outgained them 412-296. USF's 52 plays were its fewest since October 2015. The Pirates entered Saturday with two sacks all season; USF allowed six to them in front of an announced crowd of 34,562 at Raymond James Stadium.
Most of USF's early offense came with one piece of trickery in the second quarter. Receiver Darnell Salomon looked as if he was going to block a bubble screen but jetted upfield instead on a screen-and-go. Barnett hit him down the sideline for a 66-yard touchdown and a 13-7 lead.
"When everyone's doing their job," Barnett said, "things like that happen."
But that didn't happen often enough for a program trying to burst into the top 25 and make a run at a New Year's Six bowl game.
USF's offense featured too many throws to nowhere and missed blocks. The Bulls' first nine drives: six 3-and-outs, two touchdowns and a lost fumble.
The Bulls' defense was good enough to keep it in the game. The Pirates crossed midfield on five of their first seven possessions but came away with only 10 points. Linebacker Khalid McGee was pivotal, stuffing receiver Terrell Green just shy of the marker on fourth-and-6 and breaking up a third-down pass that would have put the Pirates inside the USF 30 midway through the second quarter.
USF looked as if it got a spark late in the third quarter when it got a piece of an East Carolina punt. Barnett scrambled for eight yards on the next play, and the Bulls seemed ready to start clicking inside Pirates territory.
They didn't. They surrendered their third third-down sack and came away with another empty possession.
That was the way the night went, until Cronkrite saved it. He had to; with Duran Bell, Trevon Sands and Elijah Mack all watching in street clothes, Cronkrite was the only available back listed on the depth chart (although Johnny Ford got five carries, too).
"If he's good enough," Bulls coach Charlie Strong said, "then he can handle that load."
He is. That's why the Gators signed him as a U.S. Army All-American, and why the Bulls were happy to take him when he wanted out of Gainesville.
With the game tied at 13 in the fourth quarter, Cronkrite took a simple handoff up the middle. Finally, every player did his job. A gaping hole opened.
"I really had the easy job," said Cronkrite, who finished with 129 yards on 19 carries. "All I did was run straight."
And he kept running, straight to the end zone. Eighty yards later, Cronkrite had his second touchdown at USF and his eighth as a collegian. More importantly, his Bulls had the lead — the third game in a row they had to grab it in the fourth quarter.
The late-game heroics have overshadowed slow starts and mental breakdowns the Bulls know they need to fix this bye week. That's why their postgame comments were subdued.
"We weren't ready to play tonight," Strong said, "but it's good that you get the win."
Because it could have been worse, and without Cronkrite's long-awaited big play, it would have been. Instead, the Bulls have their 150th all-time victory – and a shot at accomplishing all of the bigger goals they've set for themselves.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.