By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - USF's season opener wasn't perfect, but the Bulls produced plenty of fireworks in a 34-13 win over Chattanooga on Saturday night before a crowd of 41,285 at Raymond James Stadium.
B.J. Daniels threw three touchdown passes and ran for another score to help USF improve to 11-0 when opening the season on its home turf. The Bulls' senior quarterback went 17-for-26 for 225 yards despite throwing an interception and losing a fumble that led to 10 points for Chattanooga.
“It was OK. There are a lot of things we can definitely work on,” said Daniels, who recorded his 10th game of rushing for at least one touchdown and passing for at least one score.
USF's defense definitely held up its end of the bargain by registering six sacks and holding the Mocs to 151 total yards of offense on 63 plays. Junior defensive end Ryne Giddins came up with 1.5 sacks in Chattanooga's first three plays on offense.
“They controlled the line of scrimmage. They played a large part of this night in UTC’s backfield and I think that was the difference in the game,” USF head coach Skip Holtz said.
USF took the momentum earned by its stellar defense and used it to grab a 7-0 lead when Demetris Murray started the scoring off with a 2-yard touchdown run with 7:41 remaining in the first quarter.
Chattanooga got into USF territory for the first time after defensive end Davis Tull forced a fumble while sacking Daniels to set the Mocs up with the ball at the Bulls’ 25 with 5:33 remaining in the first quarter. Nick Pollard cut the Mocs' deficit to 7-3 with a 39-yard field goal on the drive.
Chattanooga's fourth punt of the day set USF up at the Mocs' 44 and Daniels went to work early in the second quarter. The senior was 4-for-4 through the air and connected with Derrick Hopkins for a 19-yard touchdown less than 3 minutes into the period. It was Hopkins' first-career touchdown and capped off drive that took only five plays.
Daniels' second TD toss of the half was a 38-yard strike to Terrence Mitchell with 7:27 to go before the break. Maikon Bonani's extra point made it 21-3 and gave him the USF record for career points (247), one ahead of Santiago Gramatica.
“If we’re scoring touchdowns and I’m kicking extra points, that means we’re doing something right. It’s a testament to our offense and it’s such an honor,” Bonani said.
DeDe Lattimore and Julius Forte's sack of quarterback Jacob Huesman stalled a very promising Chattanooga drive late in the second quarter. The Mocs drove from their 25 all the way to having a first-and-goal at the Bulls' 4-yard line. Huesman was on the ground at the USF 23 five plays later and Pollard's 40-yard field goal attempt went wide right.
Daniels' first interception of the season wound up in the hands of Mocs' safety D.J. Key, who returned it to the USF 4 with 1:13 to go before the break. Chattanooga cut its deficit to 21-10 two plays later when Keon Williams scored from 2 yards out with 30 seconds remaining in the half.
Daniels bounced back with his third touchdown pass of the game, a 39-yard connection with Sterling Griffin to give the Bulls a 27-10 lead less than 5 minutes to go in the third quarter. The extra point try was never attempted because of a botched snap. Daniels was 15-for-18 for 247 yards, three scores and one pick after Griffin trotted into the end zone.
Freshman kicker Henrique Ribeiro capped off Chattanooga’s scoring when he hit a 46-yard field goal to cut Chattanooga's deficit to 27-13 with 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Ribeiro's kick hit the crossbar before sailing over it on his first attempt of the game.
Holtz has said special teams could be USF’s biggest area of impact in 2012 and the Bulls definitely started off on the right foot.
Mitchell produced a 39-yard punt return that set USF up at the Mocs' 34 with 12:34 remaining in the game. Mitchell is back as the Bulls' primary punt returner after playing in just four games last season because of a concussion. He returned four punts for 69 yards along with leading all USF receivers with five catches for 78 yards.
“I’m really proud of the way that special teams showed up today,” Holtz said.
Daniels scored the final touchdown of the game after turning what looked like a sack for a big loss into a 20-yard scoring run that ended with the quarterback stretching out just enough to reach the goal line. The 21st rushing TD of Daniels' career put him into fourth place in USF's record books and helped give the Bulls a 34-13 lead with 9:52 remaining.
“There were a lot of positives out on the field tonight,” Holtz said.
Other notable USF records that belong to Bonani include field goals made (51), extra points made in a single game (10 vs. FAMU in 2011), as well as single season and career field goal percentages (81.0, 75.0).
The Bulls are now 12-4 in season openers and improved their all-time home record to 73-25 since the program started in 1997.