USF took a 17-14 lead into the fourth quarter in its first-ever meeting with Maryland before being dealt with a learning experience that could pay off down the road.
Avery Thompson provided the go-ahead score by falling on a blocked punt in the end zone with less than 13 minutes remaining and the Terps escaped with a 24-17 victory before a crowd of 28,915 at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
USF (1-1) finished just shy of tying the school record with six forced turnovers after posting four in the first half alone. The Bulls’ offense showed its ability to move the ball well after starting quarterback Mike White exited with a forearm injury after the Bulls’ first offensive play, but the unit was hampered by dropped passes in key situations.
“I’m really happy with the way our guys fought in that ballgame, but again I think it’s one of those games, one of those situations where our football team has got to learn to win those ballgames,” head coach Willie Taggart said. “They had every opportunity in the world to win that game.”
USF’s defense gave its offense a shot at tying things up with a turnover late in the game and the defense didn’t take long to get into the turnover mode early on. USF forced turnovers on Western Carolina’s first two drives in the season opener and the Bulls’ defense did it again against Maryland on the way to totaling four by halftime.
Maryland’s first drive of the game stalled when sophomore Johnny Ward (Moultrie, Ga.) intercepted C.J. Brown at the USF 20-yard line. It marked the second-career interception for Ward, who led the Bulls with five pass breakups as a true freshman last season.
“We feel like if we come out and compete we can make things happen. If we just fly around to the football good things will happen,” Ward said.
The Terps’ second drive lasted only two plays thanks to a forced fumble by junior safety Jamie Byrd (Dade City, Fla.) that was recovered by senior defensive tackle Todd Chandler at the USF 37-yard line. Chandler already has two fumble recoveries this season after scooping up a loose ball in the first quarter against the Catamounts.
The Bulls were dealt with adversity on their first offensive play of the game when White injured his left forearm while completing a 12-yard pass to senior tight end Sean Price (Citra, Fla). USF already was without senior receiver Andre Davis, who bruised his sternum making a diving catch for a 40-yard gain in the season-opening win over Western Carolina, and starting left guard Thor Jozwiak, also injured in the opener.
Maryland’s third drive started on the USF 32 and the Terps grabbed the lead on their third play when Brown connected with Marcus Leak for a 10-yard touchdown with 7:02 remaining in the first quarter.
Dropped passes prevented the Bulls’ offense from getting into a groove during the first quarter, but the Bulls’ defense helped out by getting into the scoring act on Maryland’s fourth drive. True freshman safety Devin Abraham (Tarpon Springs) forced a fumble on a carry by Brown and redshirt freshman linebacker Auggie Sanchez (St. Petersburg) returned it 21 yards for a touchdown to help even things up with 4:04 remaining in the opening quarter. USF has forced five turnovers in the first quarter this season.
“Devin Abraham made a huge play. He came and put his head on the football,” Sanchez said. “The ball was right there, luckily I was able to scoop it, keep it in my hands and score. That was awesome, first college touchdown, dream come true.”
Maryland reclaimed the lead with 2:38 left in the first quarter when Brown hit Marcus Leak for a 44-yard touchdown and the Bulls’ offense got going soon after the score with Bench at the helm. The junior from Bainbridge, Ga., connected with senior receiver Deonte Welch on a 27-yard strike to get the Bulls to the Maryland 27 on the opening drive of the second quarter.
Bench then used his feet to scramble 15 yards to the end zone for his first-career rushing touchdown that helped tie the game at 14 with 11:27 remaining before halftime. The scoring 11-play, 76-yard scoring drive took 6 minutes, 1 second off the clock.
“I’ve never seen that happen before but I was ready to go,” said Bench after replacing White so early into the ballgame. “I felt comfortable with where I was with the game plan and I went out there and I played football.”
USF’s defense kept Maryland off the scoreboard for the rest of the half, forcing two punts along with its fourth turnover after Ward recovered a fumble forced by sophomore defensive tackle Derrick Calloway (Bradenton) in Maryland territory with less than seven minutes remaining. The Terps rushed 11 times for just 36 yards in the half.
The Bulls grabbed a 17-14 lead as time expired in the half with a 35-yard field goal from senior Marvin Kloss, a Naples, Fla., native who is on the Groza Award Watch List. USF converted three third downs on the 13-play, 57-yard drive and Bench got the Bulls into the red zone with a 13-yard pass to Welch in a third-and-7 situation.
Bench went into halftime with confidence after going 9-for-21 with 100 yards through the air to help the Bulls grab a 179-163 advantage in total yards. True freshman Marlon Mack (Sarasota) led all rushers with 53 yards on 16 carries after tying single-game program record with 275 rushing yards against Western Carolina. Mack finished with a game-high 73 yards and 22 carries.
USF failed to connect on a 54-yard field goal on the first drive of the second half, as Kloss’ effort went just wide, but the defense again gave the Bulls another lift with its fifth turnover. The Terps drove all the way down the USF 18 before Sanchez made a diving interception that went through the hands of a Maryland receiver at the Bulls’ 11-yard line with 4:53 remaining in the third quarter.
USF took the lead into the fourth quarter but again the Bulls found themselves behind after a big play by Maryland on special teams. Mattias Ciabatti’s punt was blocked deep in USF territory and Thompson recovered it in the end zone to help give the Terps a 21-17 lead with 12:25 remaining.
Maryland extended its lead to 24-17 with a 23-yard field goal by Brad Craddock with 5:16 remaining after the Bulls stopped the Terps three times near the goal line.
Bench’s interception on the ensuing drive gave the Terps the ball at the USF 41 with 5:06 remaining and again the Bulls’ defense came up with a clutch turnover near the red zone. USF had new life once again when sophomore linebacker Nigel Harris (Tampa) forced and recovered a fumble at the Bulls’ 22 with 2:47 remaining.
The Bulls’ comeback attempt fell short after a penalty and two incompletions stalled their final drive in USF territory. Bench finished completing 14 of 36 passes for 162 yards and Taggart expects him to start next week as the team waits on more information about White’s injury.
“I thought Steven did some good things for us, I thought he made some plays, but I didn’t think Steven had a lot of help,” Taggart said. “There were a lot of dropped balls. We probably had at least eight balls dropped. It’s hard to get into a rhythm, it’s hard to get momentum when those things happen, especially those dropped balls on third down.”
The Bulls continue their season-opening four-game home stand Saturday, Sept. 13 against NC State back at Raymond James Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.