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The USF Bulls were unable to find their first win of the season against the Florida Atlantic Owls, falling by the score of 28-10 and dropping to a 0-3 record as well as the bottom of the American Athletic Conference.
The Bulls have now lost six straight dating back to last season, a streak that is indicative of a team that is struggling to find its identity and its leaders.
The question of who will lead this team at the quarterback position became more unclear against Florida Atlantic. Unlike last week against Michigan State, USF saw a more permanent quarterback change against the Owls.
Starter Bobby Eveld, who received head coach Willie Taggart's vote of confidence during practice last week, faced trouble early as he fumbled the ball less than five minutes into the game. The fumble, which resulted in a FAU touchdown, prompted Taggart to replace Eveld with Steven Bench.
Bench started out strong, leading the Bulls to their first touchdown since the McNeese State game with a 25-yard pass to Ryan Eppes. However, his production would dwindle throughout the rest of the match, and at one point he was unable to find the end zone despite being on Florida Atlantic's one-yard line. The sophomore also struggled to keep from turning the ball over, throwing an interception during a crucial drive midway through the fourth quarter.
"Sometimes it just doesn't go your way," Bench said, "For three games it hasn't gone our way. Turnovers kill an offense and hurt the defense too; they put everyone in a bad situation. I turned the ball over tonight, and I've got to get it corrected or else things aren't going to turn around."
Despite only finding the end zone once, Bench seemed confident behind an offensive line that has struggled all season. Considering Taggart stuck with Bench for the entirety of the game after pulling Eveld, it would appear that the sophomore is the favorite to start against Miami going into the off-week.
"I thought Steven came in and did some really good things for us when he knew exactly what he was doing," Taggart said in his post-game press conference, "I'll have to evaluate his film just like I do with all the other guys. We'll evaluate who is going to give us the best chance to create some kind of offense."
The one position that USF has little worries about is running back. Marcus Shaw continued to shine, running for 153 of USF's 161 rushing yards and averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Shaw has had to assume the role of the workhorse for an offense that can't seem to straighten out its pass game, a direct effect of the instability at quarterback. Shaw's talents are irreplaceable, but are hardly enough to get a win for a team that tends to regress against inferior opponents.
Though this matchup seemingly favored the Bulls in nearly all areas, the Owls hardly played the role of the underdog. Sophomore Jaquez Johnson, who was not expected to get the start for Florida Atlantic, led his team to their first victory this season with his versatility under center. Though he went just 10-for-17 for 98 yards passing, his ability to run the ball allowed him to seamlessly pick apart the Bulls' defensive line and find the end zone. In addition, the Bulls turned the ball over three times, a reoccurring problem the team this season.
"It's frustrating to see it three weeks in-a-row," Taggart said, "Not only are you turning the ball over, but it you're turning it over on our side of the field. We're not a good football team right now because we keep turning the ball over, and we're not going to win games doing that."
Taggart and his team will have an extra week to straighten things out before taking on No. 15 Miami on the last Saturday of the month. While assessing the quarterback situation and figuring out how to eliminate turnovers will be at the top of Taggart's priority list, it will also be critical for the young coach to continue to make his team believe in the process and stabilize the locker room.
"We just have to keep playing together and keep fighting for each other," LB DeDe Lattimore said, "That's the most important thing right now. Especially in the locker room, we need to come together as a unit to win."