TAMPA, Fla. — South Florida coach Willie Taggart is staying positive despite a one-sided loss that kept the Bulls winless heading into the American Athletic Conference season.
Stephen Morris threw for two touchdowns before limping off with an ankle injury and Duke Johnson scored a TD in his eighth consecutive game, helping No. 15 Miami roll past the Bulls 49-21 on Saturday.
"Like I told our guys, we're 0-4, no one is going to say anything positive," Taggart said. "It's the reality of it. So, let's not get caught up in that. Keep working and let's find a way to make those plays. We've got a conference (season) ahead of us. There's no need to just turn around or walk away and just give up. Quitters never win."
South Florida opens AAC play next Saturday against Cincinnati.
"All of our in-season goals are still here," USF center Austin Reiter said. "We're going into conference play. We've still got eight more games to play."
USF's offense has five touchdowns all season, including Marcus Shaw's 3-yard run that made it 7-7. Shaw wound up with 127 yards rushing, but the Bulls' offense didn't come close to scoring again until Steven Bench – their third starting quarterback in four weeks – threw a 16-yard TD pass to Derrick Hopkins with two seconds remaining.
Bench was 13-of-27 passing for 189 yards. He was intercepted once and lost two fumbles.
"We've all got to play better," Bench said. "We're looking forward to Cincinnati. This game is over."
Miami (4-0) is off to its best start in nine years heading into next weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference opener at home against Georgia Tech. At 0-4 under first-year coach Taggart, USF is off to the worst start in school history and has dropped 13 of 14 dating to last season.
"That's a really good football team, and we've got to play so much better in order to have a chance against that football team because of where we're at right now," Taggart said. "Until we get to where we want to be, we've got to play perfect football in order to compete with a team like Miami."
Morris threw for 222 yards, moving ahead of Steve Walsh and into ninth place on Miami's career passing list. He tossed TD passes of 19 yards to Herb Waters and 34 yards to Stacy Coley as the Hurricanes scored on their first three possessions and amassed 251 yards of offense in the first quarter alone.
Johnson had a 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter and finished with 84 yards on 14 carries. Miami's defense also scored, with Shayon Green sacking Bench and forcing a fumble that Jimmy Gaines recovered for the sixth defensive TD scored against USF in four games.
Morris was limited in practice early in the week after being hit on his right ankle during Miami's 77-7 rout of Savannah State. He limped off the field early in the second quarter with the Hurricanes up 21-7 and did not return.
"We protected him well. He started to get hit a little bit there, the last touchdown, and it was time to get him out and move on to Ryan," Miami coach Al Golden said. "He kept saying that he was good, but we had enough lead, I thought, that we could move on."
Backup Ryan Williams completed 8 of 14 passes for 153 yards and one TD before being replaced by redshirt freshman Gray Crow, who threw a fourth-quarter interception that defensive end Julius Forte returned 11 yards for USF's second touchdown.
Despite USF's struggles, Golden entered the game wary of the Bulls coming off a bye week that gave them extra time to prepare for the Hurricanes.
Golden felt the first 15 plays of the game would be critical because USF figured to make some adjustments during the Bulls' open date, and it was incumbent upon Miami to respond to those changes quickly.
And that's exactly what Morris did against a defense that had been solid in USF's first three games. Miami moved 77 yards in seven plays to score after the opening kickoff and drove 91 and 83 yards to add TDs on their next two possessions after having two big plays on special teams wiped out by penalties.
Miami's Maurice Hagens was flagged for holding, wiping out what would have been a 101-yard kickoff return for Johnson. On the next change of possession, an illegal block call against Tracy Howard negated a long punt return by Phillip Dorsett. Undaunted, Morris responded each time by leading the Hurricanes down the field.
Miami gained 251 yards on its first three possessions, more than USF had ever allowed in a single quarter. It was 35-7 at the half – and could have been worse.
"Our whole game plan was to continue to push the ball and continue to play smart," Morris said. "Offensively, the receivers had a great game."