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Saturday, December 9, 2023

East Carolina rips South Florida in American Athletic Conference opener in Boca Raton

SportsEast Carolina rips South Florida in American Athletic Conference opener in Boca Raton

East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers, passing against Navy last week, threw six touchdown passes against USF Saturday in Boca Raton.

BOCA RATON — From where the coin would be flipped to how the University of South Florida would fare after running a gauntlet to start the 2022 season, uncertainty marked how the Bulls would open American Athletic Conference play on Saturday.

That is, until East Carolina bounced USF, 48-28, for its third straight series victory.

Hurricane Ian originally was expected to make landfall 30 minutes west of the Bulls’ gameday venue of Raymond James Stadium so USF moved the gspanme to Bocspan Rspanton. But the hurricane made landfall 100 miles south, ultimately sparing the school’s Tampa campus and the Tampa Bay area.

Still, a true homefield advantage for South Florida (1-4, 0-1) – and actually playing in the true South Florida – wouldn’t have outweighed the passing game of ECU (3-2, 1-0) at Florida Atlantic’s Howard Schnellenberger Field.

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Fifth-year quarterback Holton Ahlers connected with junior halfback C.J Johnson for three of his six touchdown passes and tossed for 352 yards in the first half to send ECU into the locker room with a 41-7 advantage.

South Florida coach Jeff Scott took the blame for USF’s delayed start, saying, “… you can’t spot anybody that many points at halftime and really give yourself a chance.

“I told the team, ‘ Hey, there’s obviously something not connecting, especially in the first half and it’s gonna take everybody – coaches and players – to go back and look inside themselves and figure it out.’ ” 

Johnson’s four touchdowns tied the school record set by Walter Wilson versus Pittsburgh in 1989 as Ahlers tied his own single-game record of six touchdown passes.

Here are three takeaways from the game:

Undecided on Bulls defense

Did USF improve at stopping the run since allowing 283 yards and four touchdowns on the ground to Louisville? It’s hard to tell with ECU’s lead rusher, Keaton Mitchell, still sidelined by an ankle injury sustained in the Pirates’ loss to Navy.

Sure, ECU’s offense functions best in the air. That’s also where we’ve seen the Bulls defense be more productive, although not by much.

Touting the nation’s 25th most difficult non-conference schedule, facing a No. 25 Brigham Young University and Power 5s in Florida and Louisville to get the season started is no easy task. Add in the goal of winning and it gets a little harder – despite returning almost all starters on offense and defense.

USF entered American Athletic Conference play ranked fourth worst in the FBS for allowing an average 245.5 yards per game on the run. Its pass defense ranked 65th, ceding an average 220.5 yards per game.

Senior linebacker Dwayne Boyles was happy to see the Bulls only give up 45 yards in the first half after a week-to-week struggle to stop the run.

Pirate running backs, led by Rahjai Harris and Marlon Gunn, Jr., were held to 110 yards, a touchdown from the backup Harris, and an average 3.7 yards per carry. 

Understandably, Boyles didn’t reflect on how USF surrendered 352 passing yards.

Gerry Bohanon shows up in Boca 

Coming out of the second half to score two touchdowns on the first two drives, quarterback Gerry Bohanon seemed to have finally found his way out of the portal.

The Baylor transfer just didn’t reroute until it was too late for the Bulls to head home with a victory.

Bohanon came into ECU with just one touchdown on the year: a rushing score against the Gators. The junior exited the game with a season best 64 percent completion rate (18 of 28) for 253 yards and three touchdowns. The Bulls totaled 327 total yards. 

Bohanon also kept the ball for a 1-yard rush across the goal line to close his best game as a Bull to date.

The touchdown at the top of the fourth quarter would become the final score for USF after miscommunications saw the Bulls blow a red-zone opportunity forged by a called-back touchdown from Michel Dukes. 

“We’ve got to go back and kind of look at those first five games and what has worked and what hasn’t worked,” Scott said. “They were still trying to figure out kind of our identity and kind of who we are offensively.”

Proven with a Sugar Bowl for Baylor prior to his departure for USF, the difference in Bohanon’s game against ECU could be his receiving targets who sprung back from injury.

Ajou Ajou was absent, but Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr. were back on the field and the stat book made it clear. 

The receivers totaled 253 yards Saturday – highlighted by Bohanon’s inaugural 91-yard scoring connection with Horn – proving a bit more efficient than the 110 total against the Cardinals.

However, that 91 yards makes up for over half of Horn’s 180 on the day.

Continuing the gauntlet with Cincinnati (3-1) and eight consecutive conference games, the only thing certain for USF is the road to the AAC championship will be longer than the four-hour bus ride back to Tampa.

Are we there yet?

Three long years – four wins, 22 losses,  including three straight AAC openers – and it’s evident former Clemson co-offensive coordinator Scott left his winning ways back in South Carolina.

“We’ve got to play better. I mean, there were times where we didn’t have guys in position and that’s coaching – got to do a better job,” Scott said.

As Tulane (4-1), Houston (2-3), Temple (2-3), SMU (2-2), Tulsa (2-2) and War on I-4 rival Central Florida (3-1) lurk in the weeks ahead, Saturday’s performance against ECU suggests the turnaround Scott’s record requires to stay out of the hot seat is unlikely.

“We know we have the potential to be much better than we are today and that’s what’s most frustrating for the coaches and players,” Scott said.

That potential tends to not reveal itself until USF has allowed itself to have a 26-point deficit at the half.

As deflating as the rebuild has been for Bulls fans, no one is “more disappointed” than Scott.

“We’re committed 100 percent to do whatever is required to get it fixed,” Scott said.

“We’ve still got seven games left in our season and we’ll go back to start working tonight and do whatever we have to do to be able to go out and play better and win these games.”

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