TAMPA — It was hard to imagine a better start for South Florida against No. 18 Memphis.
The Bulls forced the high-powered Tigers into a three-and-out on the game’s opening possession. They then went 75 yards, thanks in large part to Kelley Joiner’s 47-yard run, on six plays to take a 7-0 lead before most of the announced 25,136 settled into their seats on Senior Day.
Alas, the Bulls totaled — totaled! — all of 95 yards the rest of the way in absorbing a 49-10 drubbing on a late Saturday afternoon that bled into a disheartening evening at Raymond James Stadium.
With the defeat, the Bulls (4-7/2-5 AAC) are guaranteed their first losing season since going 4-8 in 2014 and will not go bowling. They close out 2019 at UCF next Friday night.
Even after Memphis (10-1/6-1) tied the score with 5:01 left in the opening quarter, the Bulls had opportunities to do some damage the remainder of the quarter and early in the second quarter.
Junior corner K.J. Sails intercepted Memphis quarterback Brady White and returned the pick 40 yards to the Tigers’ 23-yard line. The Bulls had to settle for Coby Weiss’ 37-yard field goal and a 10-7 lead with 36 seconds left in the opening quarter.
The Tigers drove to the USF 20-yard line on the ensuing possession before Daquan Evans came up with his first-career interception. The freshman went 52 yards the other direction to set up the offense at the Memphis 42.
The Bulls worked their way to the Memphis 22 before stalling. Weiss then missed a 43-yard attempt wide right with 11:34 remaining in the half.
“I feel like we could have capitalized a bit on the turnovers, but we have to play better on defense to give the offense a chance,” said Sails.
Weiss’ miss was the beginning of the end as the Tigers, who entered the afternoon third in the American in both scoring (41.5 points) and total offense (481 yards), went 74 yards on 11 plays to commence a 42-0 run the rest of the way.
“When you go out there and play a good team like Memphis, all three phases have to play well together,” said USF coach Charlie Strong. “We took the ball on the opening drive and scored to go up 7-0. Then, we were able to get two turnovers and a short field and get only three points out of it. Then, we could never get any rhythm at all.”
Memphis had plenty of rhythm. In fact, their balance was such that by the end of the third quarter they had 243 yards rushing and 235 yards passing.
The Tigers, with coach Mike Norvell having made wholesale changes at the end of the third quarter, finished with 325 yards rushing and 560 total yards.
“We didn’t tackle well and then (the defense) gets worn down because it was on the field so much,” said Strong, of a unit that was on the field for 38:12.
On their next-to-last possession of the first half, the Tigers faced a 2nd-and-38 from their own 30. White found receiver Damonte Coxie for a 20-yard gain to midfield. On 3rd-and-18, the grad transfer connected with receiver Kedarian Jones for a 50-yard touchdown and a 21-10 lead.
“It was painful,” said linebacker Dwayne Boyles, of allowing Memphis off the hook on 2nd-and-38.
The dagger was administered, and in surgical-like fashion, before the half expired. White (222 yards, 2 TDs) led a 10-play, 73-yard drive in 1:29 that was capped by a 23-yard touchdown pass to Coxie with five seconds left and a commanding 28-10 lead.
The second half, in which the Bulls had all of 51 yards and used three quarterbacks, was little more than making sure nobody got hurt. That is why Strong pulled Jordan McCloud at one point and ultimately turned to Kirk Rygol to take one for the team.
“We weren’t protecting them, so it would not have mattered who lined up back there,” said Strong, whose QBs were a combined 6-of-19 for 44 yards, sacked four times and often ran for their lives.
And to think USF did not turn the ball over once while compiling all of five first downs to Memphis’ 31.
Now, the only thing left is the rivalry game against the Knights.
“It was definitely tough,” said senior defensive end Kirk Lvingstone, of losing his last home game. “We have one more game and we have to go out and finish the season the right way. It’s definitely a game we have to win against a rival.”
Tom Layberger is also a contributing writer for forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter