TAMPA — The Jeff Scott era opened Saturday night in an empty Raymond James Stadium and with the soggy and breezy remnants of Tropical Storm Sally.
The USF band, the Herd of Thunder, had a presence, albeit on a recorded basis with the fight song and anthem.
As the Bulls were about to take the field, crowd noise was piped in and the public address announcer summoned all Bulls fans, though none were present, to their feet.
Indeed, it was a season opener that will not soon be forgotten.
As for the game, the Bulls bent at times, but rarely broke against a triple- option attack. The offense did enough and special teams chipped in during a 27-6 win over The Citadel.
“I felt like our guys were ready to play,” said Scott. “They were focused all week and I wanted them to see the positives that come from that.”
Perhaps most notable is that the offense, under new coordinator Charlie Weis Jr., did not turn the ball over once while piling up 302 of its 404 yards on the ground.
The ground production came despite the undisclosed absences of three starting offensive linemen: junior left guard Demetris Harris, junior left tackle Donovan Jennings and junior center Brad Cecil.
Their lack of availability meant junior Jean Marcellus and redshirt freshmen Joshua Blanchard and Dustyn Hall, respectively, moved into starting roles. Blanchard and Hall saw some action last season, but maintained their redshirts.
“A lot of guys were in there for the first time,” said Scott. “That was a huge challenge and to rush for 302 yards, I could not be more proud of that. Also, not having any turnovers on a wet night.”
USF first found the end zone through the air. Devontres Odoms-Dukes caught a 10-yard pass from Jordan McCloud to give the Bulls a 7-3 lead with 49 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
It was the second career TD for Dukes, a graduate senior who had only eight-career receptions coming into this season.
Freshman receiver Omarion Dollison and grad transfer (Alcorn State) quarterback Noah Johnson both found the end zone for the first time in a USF uniform.
Dollison scored his touchdown in rather unconventional fashion with 6:52 remaining in the half.
Bulldogs punter Matt Campbell, stationed in his end zone, could not handle the snap. Instead of taking a safety, he attempted to punt the ball. The ball fluttered off his foot and into the arms of Dollison, who was just inside the end zone. It officially went down as a 0-yard punt return for a touchdown and gave the Bulls a 14-6 lead.
Johnson’s touchdown came on his lone series in the opening half when he capped a 5-play, 60-yard drive with a nine-yard run that gave the Bulls 20-6 lead with 2:41 remaining in the half.
Kelly Joiner’s three-yard touchdown run with 6:55 remaining in the game accounted for the final margin. The score capped an impressive drive (7-86-2:59) that Joiner began with a 27-yard run. The sophomore, who started the final two games last season, had a game-high 87 yards on eight carries.
On the defense, the Bulls forced three turnovers and held the Bulldogs to 284 total yards, 200 rushing. A couple of long runs were included that total and The Citadel moved the ball well at times, but new DC Glenn Spencer’s defense repeatedly came up with big stops.
“Anytime you open the season with the triple option it is very difficult and Glenn Spencer did a great job of putting a plan together,” said Scott. “To hold them to two field goals is incredible. For our defense to shut them out in the second half was huge.”
Without question the win was a nice way to ring in the Jeff Scott era at USF. Make no mistake, the Bulls have a lot of work to do before heading to Notre Dame next Saturday. That said, Scott could not be more pleased with how his team worked to get to this point. After all, there are a lot of teams that did not play this week.
“It is definitely a game that I will remember the rest of my career,” he said. “I could not be more proud of our team.”