UNC (1-5) suffered through an afternoon of mistakes, while USF (5-2) converted two interceptions into touchdowns and got 101 yards and two scores from tailback Ricky Ponton.
“It was a beautiful day before the game started,” John Bunting said. “[South Florida] is a pretty good team and, right now, we’re not.”
The Carolina players also seemed to take this loss particularly hard.
Wide receiver Jesse Holley said, “We let a lot of people down – the fans, the coaches and ourselves. We came out and disappointed again.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Grothe orchestrated his team’s option-oriented offense to a precision reminiscent of former UNC quarterback Jason Stanicek. Grothe wheeled, dealed and slithered USF to 234 rushing yards and four touchdowns, while picking apart the Tar Heels’ defense for 158 yards and a touchdown through the air.
Bulls wide receiver Amarri Jackson also threw for 25 yards on a flea flicker to LSU transfer Amp Hill, which set up the first of two third quarter touchdowns.
“If you don’t know where to be, and neither does someone else, that’s a touchdown,” said UNC safety Kareen Taylor, attempting to explain why this year’s Tar Heels’ team has made so many mental errors.
Many of the 44,000 Kenan Stadium fans on hand began heading for the exits when Ponton, who was back from a a six-game suspension, scored his second touchdown to give the Bulls a 34-13 lead with 4:40 remaining in the third quarter.
The Tar Heels had just pulled within two scores on kicker Connor Barth’s career-long 52-yard field goal. Carolina attempted an onside kick, but Barth recovered the ball a foot short of the mandatory 10-yard distance.
USF then marched 44 yards on eight plays to set up Ponton’s TD.
“We felt very good coming into the game, and we were well-prepared,” said quarterback Cam Sexton, who completed just 9-of-26 passes for 117 yards. He did run for a team-high 72 yards, although his net rushing yards were 38 due to five USF sacks.
USF coach Jim Leavitt said, “I’m frustrated with not getting more sacks.”
Carolina started the game strong with a six-play, 70-yard scoring drive on its second offensive series capped by Ronnie McGill’s 22nd career touchdown run – this one from 15 yards out.
The UNC defense held South Florida to a three-and-out on its first possession and was still pitching a shutout following a missed field goal attempt the next time the Bulls had the ball.
USF scored the next time out, though, with a 66-yard drive and a 19-yard touchdown run on a reverse by Taurus Johnson.
Tied 7-7, Sexton threw the first of two crucial interceptions that led directly to back-to-back USF touchdowns.
“The first one was a slant,” he said. “I did not see the guy in there, and I should have. The second one there was a post and I’m unsure about what happened there; I’ll have to watch the film.
“Dropped balls, interceptions... We’re killing ourselves.”
Sexton now has now thrown eight picks in his four collegiate starts.
“We’re struggling,” Bunting said. “Our quarterback is young, and he works hard trying to get better.”
After a bone-jarring tackle that forced Grothe to sit two plays in the second quarter, he stepped back on the field and tossed a perfect 21-yard touchdown pass to S.J. Green. Grothe put the ball in the only place safety Kareen Taylor couldn’t get to, as Green made a sliding catch in the front corner of the end zone.
No sooner than the Bulls offense could get a drink of Gatorade, they were back in action following another UNC interception. Five plays later – aided by a 10-yard circus catch by Jackson and a pass inference call against Jacoby Watkins – the Bulls took a 20-7 lead on a one-yard touchdown run by Ponton.
Carolina would have to punt on its ensuing possession, but got the ball right back when Grothe fumbled after a hit by Melik Brown. Quentin Person recovered to set the Tar Heels up 1st and 10 at the Bulls’ 36.
Three plays yielded zero yards, but Barth ran 21 yards on a fake field goal to give UNC a first down. On the play, holder David Wooldridge took the snap and flipped it to Barth, who demonstrated speed to the corner. However, deep snapper Michael Murphy was whistled for a personal foul at the end of the play – the Tar Heels’ eighth penalty of the first half.
By the end of the day, UNC had been flagged 10 times for 87 yards. South Florida was whistled four times for 36 yards.
“I’m very upset about that and very frustrated about that,” Bunting said, speaking to his team’s infractions. “That’s something I addressed in the locker room afterwards. That cannot be tolerated.”
Carolina would have to settle for a 29-yard Barth field goal just before the half to pull to within 20-10.
The Tar Heels will return to practice Sunday in search of their first win of the season over a Division I team. It’s a short week of preparation for a Thursday night, nationally televised (ESPN) game, at Virginia.
“We’ve got to come out at Virginia and just win this game,” Taylor said. “If we win this game, it will give us a boost.”