GREENVILLE, N.C. — No. 18 South Florida’s typically stout defense sprung more than a few leaks against East Carolina.
So the Bulls reverted to what worked pretty well under Willie Taggart last year — they outscored the Pirates.
Quinton Flowers threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, and USF extended its school-record winning streak to 10 by routing East Carolina 61-31 on Saturday.
“We just kept telling each other we have to score,” Flowers said. “Just continue scoring, stay within the offense, and we’ll continue scoring. And that’s what we did — we just kept scoring every chance we got, every possession, and we put up a lot of points.”
This was the Bulls’ highest-scoring game since they hung 65 on Cincinnati two years ago, and it was anything but a one-man show.
D’Ernest Johnson rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns, receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling took an end-around 75 yards for a touchdown and caught a 4-yard scoring pass from Flowers, and Auggie Sanchez returned an interception 43 yards for a TD.
The Bulls (5-0, 2-0 American) overcame some rare struggles on defense and remained perfect under first-year coach Charlie Strong by scoring on 10 of the 12 possessions with the starting offense. USF outscored the Pirates 30-7 in the second half.
“The key thing, we had to stop the quarterback run,” Strong said. “We’d call a defense, and then we weren’t getting the spill on the edge, and then the ball was getting downhill. Any time the quarterback’s running, you have to stop the downhill run. … Made the adjustment at halftime, and were able to stop it.”
Flowers, the American’s offensive player of the year in 2016, ran 16 yards for a touchdown and hit Tyre McCants for a 14-yard score. Darius Tice also had a 1-yard TD run for South Florida.
Thomas Sirk had two touchdown passes and two scoring runs to keep the Pirates (1-4, 1-1) in it for a while. He hit Davon Grayson for a 31-yard TD and Stephen Baggett with a jump pass for a 2-yard TD on the final play of the first half.
Three of their first five opponents are in this week’s Top 25 — No. 12 Virginia Tech, No. 23 West Virginia and these Bulls — and they’ve beaten ECU by a combined 181-68.
“What you saw today is that we have a long way to go to get to the top of the conference,” ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said.
South Florida: The defense had been the trademark of this team under Strong , but this score-at-will showing looked more like something Taggart’s team might have pulled off last year. A week after the Bulls held Temple to 85 total yards , that unit showed a few cracks, allowing season highs in points and total yards (414) to an ECU team that, for all its faults, can move the ball.
East Carolina: The offense kept rolling — ECU’s 24 points at halftime were more than the Bulls had allowed in any game all season — but things won’t improve until the defense gets better. The Pirates have allowed at least one 70-yard play in every game, and have given up at least 34 points in nine straight games, going 1-8 in that stretch. They allowed USF to gain 575 total yards — the fewest allowed by the Pirates this season.
The Bulls didn’t do anything to tarnish their highest national ranking since the 2011 team maxed out at No. 16. If they move up three spots — not an entirely unreasonable proposition — they’ll have their best ranking since the 2008 team was ranked 10th.
East Carolina had the ball and the early momentum trailing 14-10 on its fourth drive. Sirk threw a short pass to Quay Johnson, and the ball bounced high off his hands and directly to Sanchez, who returned it down the left sideline for the touchdown that made it 21-10 late in the first quarter.
HE SAID IT
“I always told him, ‘Valdes, you’ve got to be a dude. Today, he showed it. He’s one of those dudes that can play.” — Flowers, on Valdes-Scantling.
ECU’s Austin Barnes had a minus-5-yard punt that caromed off the back of one of his blockers, Shaun James. It came a day after Miami punter Zach Feagles had a minus-1-yard punt at Duke.
This was USF’s first 50-point game on the road. … Grayson has five touchdown catches in three games. … East Carolina hasn’t beaten a ranked conference opponent since 2009 (Houston, in Conference USA). … The Bulls had a total of 19 points in the first quarters of their first four games. They had 21 in this one.
South Florida: The Bulls have a week off before welcoming Cincinnati on Oct. 14.
East Carolina: The Pirates play host to Temple on Oct. 7.