TAMPA, Fla. — An improved defense is setting up No. 21 South Florida for a potentially big season.
The Bulls forced six turnovers and held defending American Athletic Conference champion Temple to minus-4 yards rushing Thursday night in a 43-7 victory that extends the team’s winning streak to a school-record nine straight games.
Darius Tice rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns, and USF (4-0) scored at least 30 points in a nation-leading 21st consecutive game.
Dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers and an explosive offense usually keys the team’s success, however that’s beginning to change.
The team had four interceptions Thursday night, boosting its season total to 12 in four games. The Bulls had eight all last season, when USF prospered despite having a leaky defense.
In part because of the strides made on defense, the Bulls have not lost since falling by 16 points to Temple last October in Philadelphia — a setback that wound up costing them a berth in the AAC championship game .
Coach Charlie Strong said rather than dwell on what transpired last year, he and his players focused on the importance of setting a tone for this season’s conference race.
“When you play with passion and enthusiasm, that’s the kind of performance you’ll get,” Strong said.
Tice scored on runs of 47 and 3 yards. Flowers, coming off accounting for 386 yards and five TDs in a 24-point blowout of Illinois , also ran for two touchdowns to take sole possession of first place on the Bulls’ career rushing TD list with 34.
USF’s defense, meanwhile, dominated from the start, pressuring Temple’s Logan Marchi and coming up with the first three interceptions of the season thrown by the Owls quarterback.
Backup quarterback Frank Nutile was intercepted once, and the Owls also lost two fumbles.
“You’re not going to lead very many games when you turn the ball over six times,” Temple coach Geoff Collins said.
“The thing that we talked about all week was being plus-three in the turnover margin,” Collins added. “They’re way too good of a team to be negative, especially negative six.”
The Owls (2-2) were held to minus-4 yards net rushing and were outgained 408 yards to 85. Marchi threw for 767 yards, five TDs and no interceptions in his first three starts for Temple, but was just 3 of 13 for 32 yards on Thursday night.
“We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to protect the ball, which has been a trademark for us for three entire games,” Collins said. “We let that slip a little bit tonight, but we’ll get that corrected.”
Defensive end Jacob Martin scored Temple’s only touchdown, sacking Flowers and forcing a fumble that the defensive end returned 44 yards in the second quarter.
The teams have developed a little bit of a rivalry over the past three seasons. USF knocked off the then-No. 21 Owls 44-23 in Tampa two years ago and Ryquell Armstead rushed for 210 yards and two TDs to key Temple’s 46-30 victory in Philadelphia last October.
Both teams finished 7-1 in league play, with the Owls representing the Eastern Division in the AAC championship game for the second straight year under former coach Matt Rhule, who left for Baylor in December.
Less than a week later, Strong — fired at Texas after three seven-loss seasons — landed at USF, which lost former coach Willie Taggart to Oregon.
Strong inherited a team that won a school-record 11 games and has the Bulls off to their best start since 2011.
Temple: The Owls have lopsided losses to Notre Dame and USF wrapped around close wins over Villanova and Massachusetts. The defense has been vulnerable to both the run and pass. Offensively, Collins has to get Marchi and Armstead, who gained 3 yards on 11 carries Thursday night, back on track.
South Florida: Flowers is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, however the Bulls are hardly a one-man show on offense. What’s becoming clear as the season progresses, though, is a much-improved defense has a chance to make this a truly special year for USF, which has never won a conference championship.
Playing two consecutive week-night games on national television has given USF some much appreciated attention, however it remains to be seen how much of a difference it makes in the next AP poll. The Bulls climbed one spot after last week’s dominant performance against Illinois, and it’s difficult to imagine them climbing much higher solely on their rout of Temple.
Temple: Conference home opener against Houston a week from Saturday.
South Florida: Play a Saturday game for the first time in four weeks, traveling to East Carolina for conference road opener on Sept. 30.