AMHERST — Given the final score, it might not seem realistic, but there were moments in Saturday's 58-42 South Florida win over UMass that pointed toward an upset for the Minutemen.
But as has become the case far too often this season, UMass simply could not prevent one bad play from bleeding into another, and the Bulls took full advantage in ways that have become all too familiar.
Once again, the run defense was the primary culprit for an opponent lighting up the scoreboard, as South Florida's Jordan Cronkrite put up an astronomical 302 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries. It was an impressive individual performance for sure, but with UMass coming into the game with the 124th-ranked run defense — out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams — the Minutemen have seen this before.
"It wasn't them, it was us," said UMass linebacker Bryton Barr, who made nine tackles, a sack, and an interception that he returned 53 yards that set up a touchdown in the second quarter. "We didn't execute. Defense played with a lot of energy tonight, a lot more than we have in the past. Just a couple missed assignments. That's what really hurt us."
Acting head coach Ed Pinkham, leading the team in the wake of Mark Whipple's suspension following inappropriate comments to the media following the loss to Ohio, stressed that need to keep things from snowballing when they don't go your way.
"These guys are scrappers," Pinkham said of the Minutemen, who fell to 2-5 with the loss. "It just, sometimes you play your tail off and something doesn't go right, maybe you lean back on past experiences and think of a couple negative things occurring. We've just got to be able to get over that. We've got to be able to play consistently through four quarters of football, and not dwell on the negative things and let it affect our play throughout the entire game."
There were certainly bright spots. After South Florida (5-0) scored a touchdown on its second play from scrimmage, Andrew Ford led a six-play, 77-yard drive that finished with the quarterback hitting Brennon Dingle for a 31-yard touchdown.
Although South Florida grabbed the lead back for a 10-7 advantage heading into the second quarter, Bryton's pick, aided by the pressure of defensive tackle Joe Previte, put UMass in position to take the lead. Ford rolled to his left and threw across his body to a wide-open Samuel Emilus for a 13-yard touchdown. After Cooper Garcia booted the extra point, UMass held a 14-10 lead with 13:37 to go in the half.
The Minutemen even had a golden chance to increase their lead on their next possession, but a bad snap that South Florida's Juwuan Brown recovered as UMass was just outside the red zone dashed those hopes.
It appeared that the Minutemen could at least hang onto their lead going into the break. Pinkham called a timeout that allowed the officials to overturn a 1-yard Blake Barnett rushing score for South Florida, and the UMass defense held, as Jake Byczko sacked Barnett to force a field goal and preserve a 14-13 lead.
But Marquis Young fumbled the kick return, and South Florida's Johnny Ford pounced with a 19-yard touchdown run on the next play.
South Florida was able to take that 20-14 lead into halftime, and never relinquished momentum from that point on.
The Bulls scored 28 third-quarter points, with Cronkrite doing most of the damage. He sprinted for touchdowns of 77, 30, and 76 yards in the outburst.
UMass chased points with both Ford and Ross Comis taking turns throwing the ball, as the brilliant Andy Isabella continued his special season at wide receiver. He finished with 191 yards and a 53-yard touchdown on 13 receptions.
Still, the defense never regained the spark it showed in the first half, and all the Minutemen could do was try to match South Florida score for score.
Yet even with the numbers South Florida put up, Barr saw improvements.
"This bye week will help us kind of regroup, recover," Barr said. "We know these are a long seven weeks, so it'll be big. But the score didn't show tonight that it was positive, but there was a lot of positivity that came out of it defensively. I know I can't speak for the offense, but there was just a lot more energy than we've had in the past. So we're chomping at the bit for this bye week to get finished and really get the rest of this season going."