One year ago, the South Florida Bulls took a 51-3 halftime lead over the Cincinnati Bearcats.
The problem for USF: The Bulls’ slow start to the 2015 season robbed them of leverage in an AAC East Division race Temple already controlled.
This time, in a game the Bearcats desperately wanted to win, South Florida had a chance to make a statement about the new sheriff in town, with Temple struggling in the early part of the 2016 season.
The Bulls didn’t hang 51 on Cincinnati in a half. They didn’t even score 51 in the whole game Saturday night in the Queen City. However, 45 points, a second-half shutout, and a 25-point thumping of the home team in Nippert Stadium achieved all of USF’s objectives.
South Florida engineered a transformation and a consolidation on the same highly productive night. Winning is its own reward, but winning authoritatively put a stamp on the AAC East season, one day into the month of October.
The transformational dimension of USF’s 45-20 win over Cincy is simple enough to understand: It came on the heels of a curb-stomping at the hands of Florida State. The Seminoles cruised to a 55-35 victory on South Florida’s home turf a week earlier.
What alarmed a number of USF fans heading into this 7 p.m. Eastern time kickoff on Saturday night was that when this game began, Florida State lost at home to North Carolina. Losing to Florida State carries no shame, but being completely outclassed by a team whose weaknesses are being magnified as the season moves along had to inject a jolt of worry into the USF camp. If a highly flawed FSU side could still swat them away with relative ease, the Bulls — so the thought process went — might have been a lot weaker than preseason predictions suggested.
This game in Cincinnati marked a time to reaffirm this team’s quality — the ability of the offense to get on top of an opponent, and the ability of the defense to make high-impact plays, something conspicuously absent in the Florida State loss.
USF authored these two metamorphoses, successfully regaining the formula which sailed away against the Seminoles.
Quarterback Quinton Flowers oversaw an offense which piled up 31 points through the first 41 minutes of the game, establishing a scoreboard advantage which forced Cincinnati to throw more often than it otherwise would have liked. Making UC one-dimensional placed added pressure on the Bearcats’ quarterbacks, who threw three interceptions. USF’s defense snatched four takeaways, returning to Willie Taggart’s blueprint for success. South Florida’s offense put the team in position to win. The defense — by pitching a second-half shutout after allowing 20 points in a spotty first half — closed the sale.
This was the transformation from the FSU loss South Florida badly needed.
The consolidation on display in Nippert Stadium might not be as easy to see on the surface, but it’s real.
Temple is the reigning AAC East champion, but the Owls — after losing to Army and Penn State — can no longer be seen in the same light as the 2015 group which excelled from Labor Day weekend through early December. The AAC East was up for grabs in this game. Cincinnati, the clear preseason favorite in the division last year, had a chance to mount an uprising and fill the power vacuum left by Temple’s decline.
South Florida — resurgent in the latter half of last season yet unable to win the division — entered 2016 as the clear favorite… but without the win which would affirm its status as the biggest dog on the block.
Not merely winning, but scoring an authoritative and resonant triumph by a hefty scoreboard margin — on the road, at night, one week after a rough day at the office — establishes the Bulls as the beasts of the East.
South Florida could not have asked for more on a supremely successful Saturday in Cincinnati.