The USF defense yielded 602 yards, but came up huge when it mattered most
TAMPA – On a day there was not much defense it was the USF defense that ultimately came up huge.
A fumble and an interception led to 14 points and turned a 38-35 deficit midway through the fourth quarter into to a 49-38 win over Georgia Tech at Raymond James Stadium on a sweltering Saturday afternoon.
Quarterback Blake Barnett, who totaled four touchdowns, capped both scoring drives with touchdown runs of 19 and five yards, respectively, enabling the Bulls (2-0) to overcome the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense. It was an attack that piled up 602 yards, including 419 on the ground.
“I love our resiliency and I love the way we battled,” said coach Charlie Strong. “For us to come together to play as well as we played against a really good football team, and a very unique football team, is what was special about this game.”
Trailing 38-35 and with Georgia Tech (1-1) driving deep into USF territory midway through the final quarter, safety Bentlee Sanders stripped the ball from Yellow Jackets running back Qua Searcy. Linebacker Nico Sawtelle pounced on the loose ball at the 12-yard line.
From there Barnett led the Bulls on a 10-play, 88-yard drive culminating in the graduate transfer’s 19-yard touchdown run to put his team ahead, 42-38 with 5:08 remaining. It was the ninth and final lead change of the day.
The defense came up huge again. With Georgia Tech approaching midfield on the ensuing possession, end Kirk Livingstone beat right guard Will Bryan and got a hand on quarterback TaQuon Marshall’s right arm forcing the ball to flutter aimlessly in the air. Sawtelle was in the right place at the right time once again as he intercepted the errant pass and returned it 22 yards to set the Bulls up at the Georgia Tech 18-yard line with 3:47 remaining.
“As a defense we knew we had to come together and make some plays,” said Sawtelle. “They have a dynamic offense and we needed to make some plays and get the ball back to our offense, which we did.”
Barnett took care of the rest as his five-yard touchdown run, which was confirmed upon review, closed out the scoring with 2:13 remaining. The TD capped a day in which he threw for 202 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was awesome,” Barnett said of the fourth-quarter comeback. “It wasn’t as pretty as we wanted it to be. That being said, it was great to see us respond to adversity, stay consistent and have our minds set in the right place.”
With eight lead changes through three quarters the teams spent most of the day going back and forth. Big plays punctuated the action with none bigger than two kick returns by true freshman Terrence Horne that lifted most the announced crowd of 34,182 out of their seats.
Horne’s 98-yard return midway through the opening quarter was his first-career touchdown and gave the Bulls their first lead at 7-3. His 97-yard kick return, all of 2:45 later, followed a Georgia Tech touchdown and gave USF a 14-10 lead.
Horne, whose three-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter brought the Bulls to within 38-35, had a school-record 264 kick-return yards.
“I want to contribute in both the return game and as a wide receiver,” he said. “It just feels great as a true freshman that the coaches trust me to go out and help the team.”
Everybody seemed to help in one way shape or form Saturday. The Bulls absorbed punch after punch from Georgia Tech before ultimately prevailing.
“The turnovers on defense, the special teams plays, the plays on offense,” said Barnett, rattling off how all three units came up with big plays. “It was so awesome to see our team come together as a whole and win the game.”
Barnett has accounted for eight touchdowns (five passing) in his first two games with USF….Horne’s 264 kick-return yards broke the school record of 192 set by Mike Jenkins against Cincinnati in 2007. Horne is the 25th player in NCAA history to return two kicks for touchdowns in the same game …..Receiver Tyre McCants had a career-high 10 receptions….With Jake Vivonetto ill, sophomore Coby Weiss made his debut and made good on all seven extra point attempts….The Bulls are 8-10 against ACC opponents…..Next week the Bulls travel to Chicago to play Illinois at Soldier Field.