Tampa – Another week, another gritty win. Another fourth quarter win.
It’s becoming consistent.
It’s just not what Charlie Strong or any of the University of South Florida Bulls want. And rightfully so. On paper, the Bulls looked like they would run ECU out of Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night, just like they did in Greenville in 2017.
It looked like it when USF put up 13 points in 4:47 to end the first and begin the second.
Once again, it shows why they play the games.
After ECU took a touchdown lead off of a Holton Ahlers two-yard quarterback keeper, USF matched that (minus a missed PAT) nine minutes later when QB Blake Barnett waltzed into the end zone on the left side.
On USF’s first drive of the second quarter, Barnett hit WR Darnell Salomon on a perfectly executed wheel route down the right sideline to take command.
It was the second time in two weeks that Barnett found Salomon for a huge catch in a big spot. The two linked up for the game winning touchdown at Soldier Field in Chicago, last week.
“His [Salomon] plays always come at the right times, when we really need them,” Strong said after the game. “It looks like every time he touches it, a touchdown is involved.”
By that point, it looked like the Bulls might just run away with it. It wouldn’t happen.
The Bulls punted on six of their next seven drives – a fumble to open the second half being the only other outcome.
Meanwhile, ECU clawed back with a pair of field goals from Jake Verity to tie things at 13 going into the final frame.
Something we highlighted at the beginning of the season was the immense depth at running back coming into fall camp. That depth depleted itself quickly. With Elijah Mack, Duran Bell, and Trevon Sands all out with injuries, the Bulls had limited options. Jordan Cronkrite took the majority of carries on Saturday night with Johnny Ford mixed in.
USF had 31 net rushing yards through the first three quarters. The Bulls needed a spark.
Cronkrite more than doubled that total on one run.
Backed up inside their own 20 to start, Cronkrite took an inside rush from Barnett, found a hole, and jetted 80 yards up the gut for a go-ahead touchdown. USF led 20-13 at that point and never looked back.
“It was a dog fight. We felt like it should’ve been a bigger margin of victory. [Tonight] shows that we’re a brotherhood and we never quit on each other,” Cronkrite said.
ECU tried to drive. The Pirates went for it on fourth-and-four, but Mazzi Wilkins tipped away the pass to keep them from scoring. The Pirates punted on their next drive.
They’d get one final chance, a two-minute drill in attempt to tie things up. On the first play, ECU QB Reid Herring threw to his right, but instead of finding his receiver, he found Nick Roberts, who intercepted it, icing the game.
The redshirt freshman played an important part along the secondary on Saturday night, but that moment put an exclamation point on his evening.
“Preseason camp, we felt that Nick was one of those guys that had the talent, but he just wasn’t locked in,” Strong said. “We got his attention right, and since that day, he’s been a different person.”
The Bulls improve to 4-0 after their inaugural win in conference play. Barnett finished 12-of-20 with 181 passing yards and a touchdown throw. He was sacked six times.
Saturday’s win showed that the Bulls have the opportunity to shine in really big games with their grit and determination. It was the third straight game where the Bulls took the lead in the final quarter to win the game. All three of those games have been filled with drama. They have scored 46 unanswered points in the fourth over that span.
“Its enlightening to see that [fourth quarter wins] because it shows the team has grit,” Barnett said. “I don’t think anyone on the offense is satisfied, we have to be better from the very beginning and execute the way we need to, so we don’t have to play like that in the fourth quarter.”
OTHER GAME NOTES:
Saturday’s win marked the 150th in USF’s history…the fastest Florida FBS team to do so (255 games), beating out the University of Florida by three games.
The Bulls compiled 20 points for the 34th straight game, which is the longest active streak in the nation…they have gone 25-4 in their last 29 games.
Several injury notes…RBs Elijah Mack, Duran Bell, and Trevon Sands did not suit up…Strong believes Bell will be back against UMass…TE Mitchell Wilcox exited in the second half and did not return with an ankle injury…LB Nico Sawtelle exited in the second half and did not return with an injury…WR Tyre McCants played through the game but appeared to be limping throughout the second half…DE Rashawn Yates did not participate, he had a boot on his left foot…Holder Kyle Trina remained out with a broken hand…WR/KR Terrance Horne tore his ACL in practice (non-contact per Strong) on Wednesday and did not participate on Saturday.
USF enters a much-needed bye week to get healthy before they travel to Amherst, Mass. to take on the UMass Minutemen.