For Tar Heel fans, this performance was déjà vu all over again. The Bulls (3-0, 0-0 Big East) won the turnover margin (4-3) and time of possession (33:54-26:04) battles, never letting the UNC offense develop any kind of rhythm. South Florida outgained North Carolina 428-164 on Saturday.
“I told the players that I don’t think we could have gotten off to a much poorer start than we did in this ball game,” head coach Butch Davis said. “We struggled in just about all three phases, field position [and] turnovers through the course of the game... When you turn the football over and you don’t keep the ball for very long, it just puts a lot of strain on your defense.”
North Carolina (1-3, 0-1 ACC) was never able to put any pressure on USF quarterback Matt Grothe and the sophomore took advantage, completing 17 of 30 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown, despite six drops by his receivers. The Bulls’ offensive line also provided running lanes for running backs Benjamin Williams and Aston Samuels to combine for 99 yards and a touchdown, while Grothe added 35 yards on 12 carries.
South Florida’s defensive pressure prevented T.J. Yates and his offense from getting in sync, as the heralded freshman signal-caller struggled to find daylight with only 85 yards on 11 for 27 passing and a career-high four interceptions – the most by a UNC quarterback since Ronald Curry threw four picks against Clemson in 1999.
“They did a heck of a job covering our receivers,” Yates said. “There were a lot of tight windows that I had to try to squeeze it in there. [The interceptions] were definitely all my fault. If it’s not there, you can’t throw the ball. I just can’t make those kinds of mistakes.”
USF defensive end George Selvie added to his nationally-leading sack count with three today, as well as five tackles for loss. The South Florida pass defense confused Yates and his trio of standout receivers, as Hakeem Nicks, Brooks Foster and Brandon Tate combined for only six catches and 60 yards. The UNC ground game also floundered again, equaling its season average at 79 yards.
“We’ve got to become more multi-dimensional on offense,” Davis said. “We cannot rely solely on T.J. Yates going out and expect him to throw for 350 yards a game and three or four touchdowns, and [think] everything’s going to be hunky-dory.”
South Florida’s offense knocked the Carolina defense back on its heels during the game’s opening series, driving 78 yards on nine plays for a touchdown. And while UNC’s youth has been the focal point throughout much of the season, junior Trimane Goddard missed a tackle which led to a 27-yard pass play and senior Hilee Taylor lost containment in the red zone, allowing running back Mike Ford to bounce outside for a 5-yard touchdown run.
Kendric Burney missed another tackle on USF’s next possession at the five-yard line, allowing wide receiver Amarri Jackson to walk into the end zone for a 12–yard touchdown reception on the Bulls’ second series to increase their lead to 14-0.
“We wanted to come back those next drives and answer them right away,” Yates said. “We wanted to come back and score and put some points on the board.”
Those points were much harder to come by than the Tar Heels ever imagined they would be during preparation this week.
Despite the North Carolina defense missing its flight to Tampa, Johnny White showed some flashes during one series in the first half, totaling 27 yards on North Carolina’s first and only scoring drive – a 40-yard Connor Barth field goal.
South Florida’s Delbert Alvarado would match Barth’s score with a 32–yarder of his own with remaining in the second quarter.
North Carolina couldn’t get out of their own way on this rainy Saturday afternoon, giving South Florida a first down on an offsides penalty after forcing the Bulls to punt. Grothe was unable to capitalize, however, fumbling on a quarterback scramble in the red zone with 0:58 left in the half.
The vaunted USF secondary would get the ball back quickly on a Louis Gachette interception at the 41-yard line, leading to a 23-yard field goal and a 20-3 halftime lead.
Grothe would fumble the ball back to North Carolina on the second half’s opening series, but the Tar Heels once again failed to seize the slightest bit of momentum, as another Yates’ interception resulted in another Alvarado field goal – this one from 40 yards.
With rain settling in during halftime, South Florida went to work on the clock with a conservative offensive game plan, while letting the Tar Heels continue their implosion with drops and turnovers.
The Bulls took advantage of Yates’ fourth interception by driving 33 yards for another score on a Williams’ 5-yard touchdown run with 3:28 remaining in the third quarter.
The lone bright spot for the Tar Heels was the debut of freshman running back Ryan Houston, who took the field in the second half to rush for 43 yards and a late touchdown on 11 carries. His five-yard score with 1:04 left cut the South Florida margin to 37-10.
South Florida improved to 45-5 when scoring 20 or more points since 2001 in the program’s fourth-ever appearance on ESPN, while the Tar Heels fell to 1-3 on the season.