Bulls Travel To UConn In Matchup Of Struggling Teams

USF plays at UConn on Saturday afternoon. The Bulls seek their first conference win after losing to SMU last weekin their AAC opener. (Photo: Tom Layberger)

TAMPA — On Saturday afternoon in East Hartford, a former NAIA receiver will be starting for USF and a former Division-II quarterback will be starting for UConn.

Given how the first month of this college football season went for both programs, nobody should be surprised by either development. Both teams lost their conference openers last week — by a combined 62 points — to fall to identical 1-3 marks, with the lone victory in each case coming against an FCS opponent. 

USF coach Charlie Strong said during his Monday morning press conference that something different needed to be done. His team is  averaging 305 yards per game, a paltry figure that is 122nd among 130 FBS teams, one notch behind UConn. The average includes 459 yards against FCS member South Carolina State.

The hope is a trip to Rentschler Field to face what is an improved, but still struggling Huskies’ defense, serves as the tonic for what ills the offense. Of course, nothing is expected to come easily given the eyesore that was the opening month and what is now a nine-game losing streak against FBS opposition.

“I said to our coaches we have to do something different to get our guys back on track,” said Strong. “Coming up with this game against UConn, we are going to have to play our best because we are not at the point right now where we feel like we can just go in and…..you can’t ever go through the motions. You have to play at your best.”

Bryce Miller will get the start at slot receiver. The product of East Lake HS spent a season at Lakeland-based Southeastern University, which is an NAIA member. The 5-foot-10 and 187 pounder sat out last season after transferring.

Miller has appeared in each of the Bulls’ first four games and is third on the team with seven receptions, including three for 57 yards last week. His 13-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter of last week’s 48-21 loss to visiting SMU was the first of his career.

“I definitely feel I have made a big jump just because of getting the experience to play,” said Miller, when asked how he felt about his progress this season. “ I am able to play faster now and I am not thinking as much.” 

Offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell likes what he has seen out of the sophomore walk-on.

“He’s a hard-nosed football player, just a good football player,” he said. “He is not the biggest, not the fastest, but man he gets open and plays hard. He’s going to start a lot for us.” 

Quarterback Jordan McCloud made his second start last week and had a rough first half completing 8-of-19 passes for 66 yards and two interceptions. The redshirt freshman did not play the second half due to what Strong said was a contusion on his throwing wrist.

McCloud has been practicing this week and is expected to be ready Saturday. He will face a pass defense that ranks 122nd nationally in efficiency thanks in large part to allowing 11 TD passes with only two interceptions.

“He’s tough enough and he wants to (play), so he will be able to get it done,” said Strong. “The thing about him is he doesn’t get down much and he’s one of those guys that can bounce back. With him, it’s just getting back out there, going to work and making sure he places the ball where he needs to place it. We’ll be okay with him because he will be able to bounce back.”

Blake Barnett played the second half against SMU and threw for 222 yards and three touchdowns. He suffered a high ankle sprain on the Bulls’ final series and Bell said Wednesday that the senior had yet to practice.

UConn has injury problems of its own at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Steven Krajewski came on in relief late in the first quarter of last week’s 56-21 loss at UCF. He threw for 273 yards and three touchdowns despite suffering what was later diagnosed as a broken clavicle incurred shortly after taking over the Huskies’ offense.

With Krajewski out and possibly missing the remainder of the season, graduate transfer Mike Beaudry, who was the starter coming out of preseason camp, gets the nod Saturday. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Canadian attended high school in Orlando and led West Florida (Pensacola) to the Division-II championship game in 2017. 

In the Huskies’ season-opening win against Wagner, Beaudry threw for 158 yards with one interception and ran for a TD. Injuries kept him sidelined the past three games.

In addition to the teams being close in total offense, they also have similar numbers defensively. The Bulls are allowing 392 yards per game to place 10th in the American and the Huskies are 11th in yielding 395 yards. That’s a far cry from the incredible 617 UConn yielded on a per-game basis a year ago.

USF, which is second nationally with 13 turnovers gained, fell behind SMU 34-0 at the half last week and yielded 497 yards for the game. Linebacker Patrick Macon acknowledged the loss was tough to take, but the team is not down on itself.

“We’re still feeling confident,” said the team’s leading tackler. “That’s the word of the day and confidence is key. It was a harsh loss, but you just have to come back and don’t let that kill your confidence. The main focus is confidence, positive vibes and the results will show.”

The Bulls have little choice but to show some results this week. 

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Broadcast note: Due to mosquito-borne EEE virus concerns, the game’s start time was moved up to noon from 7 p.m. The game will be streamed live on CBSSportsNet and then replayed in the original time slot on CBSSN.

Bulls Notes
USF has won seven straight against the Huskies. The Bulls lead the series against their former fellow Big East member, 11-5, with the average margin of victory 8.3 points. The 16 meetings are tied (Cincinnati) for the most in the program’s 23 seasons, though with UConn moving back to the now non-football playing Big East there are no future games planned. The football program will operate as an independent….The Bulls’ 13 turnovers gained are second nationally, one behind Mississippi State, which has played five games. They are tied for sixth nationally with a turnover margin of plus-1.5 per game….Linebacker Patrick Macon is third in the American with an average of 7.5 tackles per game and fourth with 1.5 tackles for loss….Trent Schneider is third in the conference with an average of 44.8 yards per punt….Three of tight end Mitchell Wilcox’s 10 receptions have gone for touchdowns. He leads the Bulls with 178 receiving yards….Jordan McCloud leads the Bulls in rushing with 82 yards. The team is averaging 98 rushing yards per game, last in the American and 123rd nationally.

Huskies Notes
While the Bulls have lost nine straight to FBS foes, the Huskies have a 19-game losing streak in such games. The last win was October 21, 2017 against Tulsa at home….A bright spot again this season is the running of Kevin Mensah, who is averaging 82 yards per game to place fifth in the American. Mensah ran for 1,045 yards last season, including 120 and two touchdowns on 19 carries against the Bulls at Raymond James Stadium….Junior linebacker Omar Fortt is fourth in the conference with an average of 7.2 tackles per game.

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.