TAMPA, Fla. — Blake Barnett’s never fancied himself as much of a runner.
“Even in high school, when I was listed as a dual-threat,” South Florida’s graduate transfer said, “I wanted to be (known as) a pocket passer “
The Bulls are learning the former Alabama and Arizona State quarterback can impact games with his feet, too. Barnett rushed for two touchdowns and threw for two more Saturday, helping USF come from behind to beat Georgia Tech 49-38 before an announced crowd of 34,182 at Raymond James Stadium.
“I just want to do what I can to help this team,” said Barnett, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 202 yards with one interception.
He also rushed for a team-best 91 yards on 16 attempts.
“The thing about Blake is I think he wants to prove that he can really play,” coach Charlie Strong said. “You think about it, three years ago, he was the No. 1 quarterback (coming of high school). Then he goes to Alabama, and he goes to Arizona State and he kind of disappears. ... You know can he can throw the ball, and if he needs to move the chains with his feet, he can do that, too.”
The Bulls (2-0) rallied from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit, drawing within 38-35 on Barnett’s 3-yard TD pass to Terrence Horne. They took lead for good on Barnett’s 19-yard run with just over five minutes to go, then put the game out of reach with a 5-yard scoring run setup by linebacker Tico Sawtelle’s interception.
Sawtelle also recovered a fourth-quarter fumble that stopped a promising Georgia Tech drive.
Horne, meanwhile, also scored on first-quarter kickoff returns of 98 and 97 yards for USF, which continued an impressive stretch of success against Power 5 conference teams.
“You create your own luck. You got to make plays,” said Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson, whose team played the last three quarters without safety Tariq Carpenter, who was ejecting for targeting.
“When you have a chance, you need to make plays,” Johnson added, bemoaning missed opportunities on defense. “Same thing on offense. When you have the chance, you need to make plays. And, you got to hold on to the ball.”
Barnett, who started Alabama’s season opener before leaving the Crimson Tide in September 2016, won the battle to succeed USF career passing leader Quinton Flowers in fall camp after spending last year as a backup at Arizona State.
The elusive and speedy Flowers was one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation over the past three years. At 6-foot-5, 217 pounds, Barnett is less of a threat to run, but has been effective when he chooses to take off.
“He’s athletic,” Strong said. “He has a lot more ability than people think.”
TaQuon Marshall and Tobias Oliver keyed a 419-yard rushing attack for Georgia Tech (1-1), which was driving with a chance to restore a 10-point lead before Qua Searcy fumbled inside the USF 15 and Sawtelle recovered the loose ball at the 12.
Barnett took over from there, leading an 88-yard drive that ended with the 10th lead change of the game.
The USF quarterback finished 21 of 31 passing for 202 yards with one interception. He also had a team-high 91 rushing on 16 attempts.
Marshall threw for 183 yards and one TD for Georgia Tech. He also scored on a 45-yard run while sharing playing time with backup Oliver, who finished three long second-half drives with scoring runs of 5, 1 and 1 yard.
Georgia Tech: Like USF, the Yellow Jackets didn’t have a real good idea of where they stood after being barely tested in a 41-0 season-opening rout of Alcorn State. USF has one of the nation’s most balanced offenses. The Bulls amassed 426 yards total offense Saturday, including 224 on the ground.
South Florida: After finishing the past two seasons ranked in the Top 25, the Bulls were hoping to show that their 23-4 record since the start of 2016 isn’t a fluke and they’re being built for long-term success.
Georgia Tech topped 400 yards rushing for the second straight week and sixth time in 13 games. The Yellow Jackets had three players with at least 95 yards, with Marshall going for 113 on 13 carries and Oliver gaining 97 on 18 attempts. Jordan Mason finished with 95 rushing on 13 carries, while Clinton Lynch had three receptions for 111 yards out of the backfield, including an 81-yard TD.
USF has won six of its last seven games against Power 5 opponents, including bowl victories over South Carolina and Texas Tech. The lone loss over that stretch was 20-point home loss to Florida State in 2016.
BACK AND FORTH
There were five lead changes in the first quarter alone, with two of them coming on Horne’s kickoff returns. Barnett’s 18-yard TD pass to Darnell Salomon put USF up 21-17 at the half, despite Georgia Tech outgaining the Bulls 265 yards to 169 up to that point.
Georgia Tech: Travel to Pittsburgh for Atlantic Coast Conference opener next Saturday.
South Florida: Neutral site matchup Saturday against Illinois in Chicago.