You can take what you want from USF's loss to East Carolina, though the moral-victory advocates will have a tough case to make after the Pirates scored the game's final 21 points in their 28-17 victory Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.
"We knew they were going to come back and challenge us, and we didn't finish and that is what we have to improve on," USF head coach Willie Taggart said. "When you have people down you have to keep people down, and that is the thing we have to improve on the most. We also missed a lot of tackles in the second half and had too many penalties."
For more than 45 minutes. USF had the
nation's 19th-ranked team on the ropes and made ECU's high-powered offense look like a Model T.
The Pirates came into the game ranked fourth in total offense, averaging 43.6 points per game. They trailed 17-7 at halftime, and long-suffering Bulls fans were hoping for a ticket out of misery.
The Bulls' defense held ECU quarterback Shane Carden in check for two quarters. The senior, who had thrown for 400 plus yards in three straight games, had only 103 in the first half.
But then Carden showed why some are calling him a first-round NFL Draft pick and finished with 250 yards, completing 13 of 18 passes for 147 yards in the second half.
He picked the Bulls apart in the second half, taking the Pirates on a 12-play, 84-yard drive and then a 12-play, 86-yard drive on the Pirates' first two possessions of the third quarter. During that stretch, he completed 12 of 13 passes.
"We said we wanted to stop their run and didn't do a good job of that, which was due to too many missed tackles. I don't think it was fatigue," Taggart said. "We have to do a good job of playing with passion in the second half. We had too many penalties in the second half, and that is from guys not being focused and not locked down. It was a trickledown effect, and then we panicked. We have to stop beating ourselves."
USF's offense couldn't offer any help and left its defense on the field too long. Defenders were just gassed, and Carden looked as if he was running a 7-on-7 drill with no defenders.
"Any loss in itself is disappointing. If it's against a ranked team, it adds injury to insult. We have to learn how to finish," USF quarterback Mike White said. "That is one thing this team needs to do in order to get where it wants to go and I believe we are on the way. It's disappointing, but we are not going to let this loss beat us next week."
The Bulls are young and subject to mistakes, starting nine true freshmen in the last two years, including three this season with 17 seeing action.
To be realistic ,the Bulls are making progress though not everyone will see it. The loss to McNeese State to open the Taggart era is far back in the rear view mirror and last year's 2-10 record is looking like a blip on the radar.
So now the Bulls are 2-4, but with a good amount of winnable games left among the six they have remaining.
Taggart is now 0-7 against ranked teams during his reign as head coach at Western Kentucky and USF. His offense is getting better, but it's not good enough to have the Bulls dreaming of a bowl game.
Receiver Andre Davis came back after missing four games and we learned how much he was missed. The senior caught six passes for 124 yards in becoming USF's career yardage reception leader.
White showed improvement though his stats are a little deceiving. The sophomore completed 16 of 24 passes over the first three quarters. Things got out of hand in the fourth period and he finished 21-of-41 for 274 yards.
The pro style run game that Taggart is trying to establish is not there yet. USF gained 93 yards on 27 carries. Marlon Mack led the Bulls with 63 yards on 15 carries.
It wasn't moral victory. It was progress if you want to look at it that way.
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter @ADellSports.