TAMPA — During his postgame press conference on Saturday night, South Florida coach Charlie Strong noted how he rewarded his team for its hard work by allowing the players to make the pregame walk to the stadium from the buses in their sweatsuits instead of coat and tie.
The Bulls then rewarded a homecoming crowd of an announced 35,375 by holding on for 27-23 win over BYU at Raymond James Stadium.
As has often been the case dating to the middle of last season, things looked bleak during the first half. BYU played keep-away and at one point had a 35-10 advantage in plays.
The Bulls did not record their initial first down until midway through the second quarter, but trailed only 16-7 at the break thanks to a defense that dug deep and twice held the Cougars to field goals after they drove inside the USF 15-yard line.
The Bulls scored their touchdown on a 39-yard pass from McCloud to tight end Mitchell Wilcox. Wilcox made a diving grab in the end zone on a pass that he said was not intended from him. Regardless, that made it 13-7.
Though BYU answered with a field goal, the defense kept minimizing the damage.
“To hold them to 16 points at the half was critical because we kept saying that we can’t let them score,” said Strong. “We gave up some plays, but we didn’t give up touchdowns.”
The Bulls were able to get touchdowns during a second half in which they twice came within two points before taking their only lead on Jordan Cronkrite’s three-yard touchdown run with 7:37 remaining in the game to account for the final margin. It was Cronkrite’s second TD on a day in which he ran for 158 yards on 26 carries.
“We talked all week about playing fast and physical and that’s just what I trying to do,” said Cronkrite, who ran for 148 yards at UConn last week. “We stuck to the game plan. We felt we were the better football team going in and we stuck to our technique and fundamentals.”
After the Bulls (3-3) took the lead, BYU (3-3) turned to Baylor Romney to direct the offense in relief of redshirt freshman Jaren Hall, who performed admirably (221 total yards, two TDs) in his first career start before leaving due to injury.
Romney, also a redshirt freshman, drove the Cougars to the USF eight-yard line. Two plays later, on 4th-and-7 from the 10 and needing a touchdown to take the lead, Romney’s pass to brother Gunner Romney was short of the chains and the latter was taken down at the five-yard line by defensive back Bentlee Sanders.
The Bulls took over with 1:36 remaining, but scratched out only eight yards as BYU used all three of its timeouts.
A clutch 61-yard punt by Trent Schneider rolled out of bounds at the BYU 26-yard line with 1:09 remaining.
“I knew I had to deliver for them,” said Schneider. “I got off a good kick and turned it over to the defense.”
Before the defense did its job one last time, Romney again drove the Cougars down the field and got as far as the USF 12. Then the Bulls forced two incompletions in the end zone and got a sack from linebacker Antonio Grier that drove the Cougars back to the 20. Then, on the game’s final play, safety Devin Studstill broke up a pass in the end zone on 4th-and-18.
“They continued to drive down to the red zone, but that’s when we stood up and played our best ball all day,” said end Greg Reaves, who along with safety Nick Roberts had a team-high eight tackles. “We knew we could play with them, we knew we could make plays and make things happen.”
They made things happen just enough on Saturday. Having won two straight to even their record at 3-3, the Bulls head into the season’s second half that features six conference games starting next week at Navy.
“When we were 1-3, the season’s not over,” said Strong. “People were acting like they were going to jump off a mountain. There was still a lot of football left and now there’s still a lot of football left. Winning (the last two weeks) gives them confidence. To go on the road at UConn and win and to win here today is real big for us.”
Jordan McCloud, who had a contusion on his right throwing wrist against SMU, wore a glove Saturday. He attempted only 14 passes and twice overthrew open receivers deep.
“My wrist was still bothering me and my grip wasn’t as good without (the glove),” said the redshirt freshman, who noted he suffered a “bad stinger when I was running up the middle” during what he said was the Bulls’ second or third drive.
McCloud wasn’t the only one on offense who was banged up. Strong praised sophomore center Brad Cecil for remaining in the game after hurting his shoulder and slightly spraining an ankle.
“I told the team, that’s who we want to be,” said Strong. “We talk about toughness, you look at him and he was not going to come out of the game.”
Trent Schneider averaged a school-record 52.8 yards on five punts. He had two that traveled 61 yards….The defense recorded 16 tackles for loss and six sacks. The sack total was the most since also totaling six against Chattanooga in 2012. Linebacker Dwayne Boyles Jr. led the unit with 2.5 TFLs and linebacker Antonio Grier Jr. had a team-best two sacks….The Bulls piled up 243 yards rushing and improved to 17-1 under Charlie Strong when reaching the 200-yard plateau…..Jordan Cronkrite now has seven career 100-yard rushing games…..After rushing for a career-high 64 yards on eight carries last week at UConn, senior Trevon Sands had 63 yards on 10 carries versus BYU….Next Saturday’s game at Navy is 3:30 and on CBSSN. The Midshipmen defeated Tulsa on Saturday night to improve to 4-1/2-1.
Tom Layberger is a contributing writer for forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter.