USF Seeks Happy Homecoming Against BYU

The Bulls return to Raymond James Stadium to play BYU on Saturday afternoon. (Photo: Tom Laybeger)

TAMPA — BYU is 0-7 all-time in the state of Florida and USF would love to do nothing more than to climb .500 and keep their guests winless within the state’s borders.

The teams clash Saturday on a homecoming afternoon (3:30 CBSSN) at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls (2-3) have won three in a row on homecoming.

Even with Kalani Sitake’s team, which is coming off a bye, having lost the services of quarterback Zach Wilson (hand) and top running back Ty’son Williams (ACL) due to injury, it will be a chore for the Bulls — What isn’t a chore these days? — to prevail over a blue-collar and battle-tested team.

The Cougars (2-3), who departed the Mountain West to go independent in 2011, have played three teams that were ranked at the time. The two wins have come at Tennessee and in overtime versus then-No. 24 USC. The losses were at home to then- and current-No. 15/15 Utah, then-No. 21/22 Washington and at Toledo, which is 4-1. While the Volunteers are 1-4, the others are a combined 15-6.

Redshirt freshman Jaren Hall will get the start at quarterback. Six of his seven pass attempts this season were in the Cougars’ last game at Toledo after Wilson was injured. In Williams’ absence, Emmanuel Esukpa, a 5-foot-11 and 225-point graduate transfer from Rice, led the ground game against the Rockets with 61 yards on 12 carries.   

“The team that we are playing this week is big, physical and they’re athletic,” said coach Charlie Strong, whose only previous game against BYU as a head coach was a 41-7 loss with Texas in 2014. “We just need to match the intensity that we played with (at UConn last week). We have to start doing it early and that’s what we were able to. Our guys started fast and we were able to play like that from start to finish.”

Indeed, the Bulls got a much-needed win in East Hartford last week and looked pretty impressive in the process. Sure, the Huskies are scraping the bottom of the FBS barrel these days. But that shall not discount an effort that saw quarterback Jordan McCloud total four touchdowns (three passing) to lead an offense that amassed 503 yards, an attack buoyed by a running game that finally got going and to the tune of 313 yards.

Jordan Cronkrite, bottled up the first four games (33 rushes, 77 yards) of this season, ran for 148 yards on 20 carries. It was the first time he reached the century mark since rushing for 103 yards against UConn last October, a stretch of 11 games.

Trevon Sands enjoyed a career afternoon in more ways than one. Not only did he run for a career-best 64 yards, but he also found the end zone for the first time in his four seasons on a five-yard run early in the second quarter to cap an 85-yard drive.  

“Just to see us run the football was real good,” said Strong. “We haven’t been able to run the football very good the past three or four games. To see Cronk go for (148 yards) was really big for us and even Sands getting the numbers he got. Cronk probably left some yards on the field, too, and he would tell you that. He probably could have had more. But to see him bounce back and have the attitude he had and the way he ran through the hole  with his first carry, it was really aggressive, you knew he was going to have a big day.”

Sands, a senior, entered last week’s game with 189 career rushing yards.

“I ran hard,” he said. “The holes were there and anyone could have run through those holes. The o-line came to play and it was a good team win.”

It sure was. In addition to the offense coming to life, the defense registered a number of big stops and the special teams got a 67-yard kick return from Bentlee Sanders to set up a touchdown. Even kicker Spencer Shrader got into the act by running for a 22-yard TD off a fake field goal.

The defense totaled 10 tackles for loss (five sacks) against the Huskies and the unit heads into Saturday’s game averaging 9.8 per game, good for fourth nationally behind a trio of Big Ten defenses.

Sophomore linebacker Dwayne Boyles, who has 14 tackles the past two games, is tied for second on the team with six tackles for loss. He knows what the unit needs to do Saturday.

“Their quarterback’s hurt, and their top running back is hurt,” he said. “So, we’re going to try to take advantage of that. We’re going to try and attack them. Even though they’re bigger than us, we’re going to try to be way more physical than them.”

If so, it would likely go a long way in the Bulls’ recording their first home win since last October 20 — nearly one full year! — against UConn. Oh, beating an FBS team other than the Huskies would be welcome as well.

The bottom line is more progress needs to be evident against the Cougars if the Bulls are to go into the teeth of the conference schedule with any legitimate momentum.

“We can still improve and get better,” said Strong. “Each and every week is a one-game series. That’s how we have to look at it. It’s all about BYU right now and just get ready to play them.”

Bulls Notes
Blake Barnett’s high ankle sprain will keep him sidelined. Kirk Rygol will again serve as McCloud’s backup. The sophomore completed the first pass of his career last week at UConn, 33-yard TD to DeVontres Dukes late in the fourth quarter….Saturday’s game marks the first in a home-and-home series with BYU. The Bulls travel to Provo on September 25, 2021….Bryce Miller, who started for the first time in his career last week, is 6-93-3 the past two games. His three TD catches are tied with Mitchell Wilcox for the team lead….USF is third nationally having gained 14 turnovers and second with eight fumble recoveries…..Linebacker Patrick Macon leads the defense in tackles (35) and tackles for loss (7). His two sacks are tied with Greg Reaves for the team high…..Trent Schneider’s average of 44.5 yards per punt is third in the American.

Cougars Notes
The last time BYU played in the Sunshine State was in 2014. The Cougars played two games against American Athletic Conference programs and both matchups resulted in overtime defeats. A single-OT setback at UCF that October was followed a little more than two months later with a double-overtime loss to Memphis in the now-defunct Miami Beach Bowl….Hall is also a center fielder on the baseball team. In limited time last season he drove in five runs and stole four bases….The Cougars are averaging 22.2 points per game, which is 104th nationally. The are allowing 31.2 points to rank 101st….The team’s three top pass catchers, receivers Aleva Hifo, Micah Simon and tight end Matt Bushman are each averaging 14.1 yards per catch…..Redshirt junior linebacker Kavika Fonua leads the team with 44 tackles….BYU s 23-6 all-time against current American teams. Tulsa is the only team they have they played more than three times, going 7-1 in eight meetings versus the Golden Hurricane.

Tom Layberger is a contributing writer for forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Tom Layberger has been a sports writer, reporter and editor since 1990. Among the companies he has worked for are Comcast, NBC and The Topps Company. In addition to being a contributing writer for sportstalkflorida.com, Tom also writes for forbes.com and globalsportmatters.com. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a USF grad, Tom is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. He resides in Tampa.