A poor first quarter set the stage for a Gasparilla Bowl loss
TAMPA — The first quarter of Thursday night’s Gasparilla Bowl looked all too familiar.
Missed tackles, players not being on the same page and the opponent ripping off one big play after another underscored the first 15 minutes for USF in what would be a 38-20 loss at the hands of Marshall at Raymond James Stadium.
Sprinkle in a bad snap that set up the Thundering Herd at the Bulls’ one-yard line and you had the team playing a bowl on its home field facing a 21-7 deficit after one quarter, a deficit from which they could not recover.
With the loss, USF became the first team to start a season 7-0 and finish 7-6. In so doing the Bulls carry a six-game losing streak into 2019.
“It’s really tough when you start off so well and finish the way we did,” said coach Charlie Strong of that undefeated start to the season. “When you don’t tackle well, you don’t execute and you don’t play well, then this is what happens.”
The loss dropped USF to 6-4 in bowl games.
Marshall, which had 282 yards rushing and 221 passing for a total of 503, won its seventh straight bowl, six of them under coach Doc Holliday. The Thundering Herd, now 12-2 in bowl games, finished the season 9-4.
The Bulls’ 7-0 start included comeback wins against Georgia Tech, Illinois and Tulsa. There would be no coming from behind when the schedule hit hard in the season’s back end. In fact, the Bulls lost each of the six games by at least 10 points and were outscored by an aggregate 236-131.
It was clear early Thursday night that the trend would not change. In that defining opening quarter Marshall had 10 plays of at least 10 yards and totaled 212 yards in scoring one more point than the Bulls would total for the game.
“It definitely killed us that we missed tackles,” said junior linebacker Greg Reaves. “We talked about it at halftime that we were really killing ourselves with missed tackles and missed assignments. We had a lot of that tonight and it’s not a recipe for success.”
After falling behind 14-0 thanks to Marshall scoring twice within a 37-second span of the opening quarter, the Bulls, with tight ends/special teams coach Justin Burke calling the plays, appeared to have the recipe for a potentially fun night.
Receiver Tyre McCants, operating out of the wildcat, connected with Randall St. Felix on a 38-yard touchdown that made it 14-7 with 2:43 remaining in the quarter.
The Bulls, however, would not get any closer.
“It’s tough when you are at home and you have a chance to come back home after getting beat by Central Florida,” said Strong, referring to regular season finale at Raymond James. “It’s tough. You don’t want to lose at home whether it be a bowl game or anything when you are at home.”
St. Felix, slowed by injuries at times this season, capped his freshman campaign by catching six passes for a USF bowl record 165 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The second score was a 33-yarder from Blake Barnett that brought the Bulls to within 31-20 with 3:16 remaining in the third quarter.
Barnett, who has battled injuries and had his right leg taped, came on after Chris Oladokun played the first two series. The grad student, who arrived at USF shortly before fall camp, was 11-of-23 for 212 yards and finished his first season as a starter by throwing for 2,710 yards, 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
“Obviously, tonight was not the result that we wanted,” he said. “But with that being said, there are a lot of guys coming back and I’m really looking forward to not only building off this year, but this off-season.”
For Strong and the returning players, and there are likely to be a number that do not return, that is about all they can do right now.