TAMPA (WFLA) – USF football (1-4; 0-1 AAC) opened its 20th season of conference play with a 48-28 loss to ECU (3-2; 1-1 AAC) Saturday at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Fla.
The teams played 184 miles from the USF campus in front of a sparse crowd as the game was relocated to Boca Raton due to the impacts of Hurricane Ian. It marked the first relocated game in program history. The USF team relocated to Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday and practiced in the area the remainder of the week leading up to the game.
The Bulls fell to 9-4 vs. ECU, falling for the third straight time to the Pirates, and 5-5 in AAC openers, dropping their fourth in a row.
ECU produced 397 first half offensive yards behind monster halves from senior quarterback Holton Ahlers – 352 yards passing and five touchdowns – and wide receiver C.J. Johnson – 176 yards and three touchdowns. The Pirates finished with 575 yards, Ahlers totaling 465 yards and five touchdowns through the air and Johnson finishing with 197 yards and four touchdowns on seven catches.
USF sophomore receiver Jimmy Horn had a career day, hauling in eight passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 22.5 yards per catch, including a 91-yard touchdown. Horn’s total ranks as the fourth-most receiving yards in a game in program history and the most since Tyre McCants set the Bulls’ game record with 227 at UCF in 2017.
USF’s 455 total yards and 253 passing yards on offense both were season highs, but ECU’s total offense equaled the most the Bulls have given up on the year (matching BYU). The Bulls failed to score twice inside the ECU 5-yard line, getting stopped once due to a fumble and the second time on downs.
Senior linebacker Dwayne Boyles led the Bulls’ defensive effort with 12 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
ECU struck on their first possession as Ahlers hit Johnson on third-and-long with a 60-yard touchdown pass.
The USF defense forced a punt on ECU’s next possession, but the offense failed to move the ball from deep in their own territory and the Pirates used good field position to put together a 64-yard drive to go up 14-0. ECU came up with a big 4th-and-7 at the USF30 to extend the drive, and scored on a 22-yard pass from Ahlers to Isaiah Winstead.
The USF offense got going with a 20-yard run from quarterback Gerry Bohanon and two long passes to Jimmy Horn Jr. for 16 and 20 yards, but on first-and-goal from the ECU 6-yard line, Bohanon fumbled on a designed run and ECU recovered.
Three plays later, Ahlers hit Johnson over the shoulder and he raced down the sideline for a 74-yard touchdown to make it 21-0 with 14:09 to play in the first half.
After the kickoff, the Bulls started on their own 7, but responded quickly as Bohanon hit Jimmy Horn over the middle on the second play of the possession and Horn raced 91 yards for the touchdown and the third longest pass play in program history.
The USF defense forced a three-and-out from ECU, but the offense couldn’t move the ball and the Pirates squelched the momentum with a seven play, 71-yard touchdown drive capped by a 21-yard Ahlers to Ryan Jones touchdown pass that pushed the lead back to 28-7.
ECU made it 34-7, missing the extra point, after a long punt return set up a short touchdown drive. The Pirates extended the margin to 41-7 at the half when Ahlers hit Johnson again for his third touchdown reception of the first half with 13 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
The Bulls rallied to start the second half as Bohanon hit Horn for a 27-yard touchdown and later connected with Sean Atkins on a 4-yard slant for to cut the ECU lead to 41-21 with 7:30 to play in the third quarter.
ECU cut the momentum with a nine-play, 75-yard drive capped by yet another Ahlers to Johnson touchdown pass. USF rallied again, making it three straight touchdown drives to begin the second half after goiing 75 yards for a touchdown with Bohanon completing the drive with a 1-yard run.
The USF defense got the ball back when Boyles forced a fumble and Jayden Curry recovered on the ECU 35. The Bulls used 11 plays to drive to the ECU 1 where a Michel Dukes dive to the pylon came up just short of scoring. USF was denied on three more attempts inside the five and turned the ball over on downs with 6:30 to play.