Game 8 Preview; South Florida

Fresh off a dominating performance last Saturday at Rutgers, the Houston Cougars return to the comfy confines of Reliant Stadium this Thursday for a Halloween clash as they host the Bulls from the University of South Florida. The nationally televised ESPN contest is set for 6PM (CST).

With the 49-14 victory over Rutgers in New Jersey, the Cougars are tied for first place in the first year of American Athletic competition with UCF (Central Florida) as both teams hold a 3-0 conference record. Overall the Coogs are 6-1 in head coach Tony Levine's second season.

The Bulls (2-5, 2-1 in conference) are led by first year head coach Willie Taggart, who's football philosophy is like that of the coach who recruited him to Western Kentucky (where he played and started at quarter back from 1995-98); Jim Harbaugh (who was an unpaid assistant helping his father and WKU head coach, Jack Harbaugh). Speaking of the younger Harbaugh, rumor has it that his famous ‘pep talk' during that Visa commercial wasn't for a youth league football team but instead given to the Bulls after their first spring practice, "Run! Go! Go! Did he just fumble? I-formation. I-formation! We have got to get the 3-technique blocked! I'm not angry. I'm not yelling. Nobodies tackling anybody! We have absolutely NO concept of zone blocking technique! We can't secure the QB/center exchange! Who told you to take a break?!" Yep, sounds like how the Bulls have played so far this season to me!  Anyway, getting back to Taggart, his philosophy is as old-school as it gets; you win by running the football and stopping the run. Your QB has to manage the game and not turn the ball over, and finally; your defense and special teams must play great.

Taggart became an assistant coach at WKU after his playing days ended (after ending the 98 season as the NCAA Division 1 Offensive Player of the Year), until he left for Stanford after Jim was hired as the Cardinal head coach for the 2007 season. He was then hired to coach his alma mater in 2010 where he led the Hilltoppers to 16 wins in three seasons before being named the head man for the Bulls on December 9th of last year. The hire seems to be a perfect fit as Taggart is young (37 years old this season), knows how to recruit the fertile football breeding grounds of the state of Florida (as he played at Bradenton Manatee High School), and knows how to turn around a struggling program from first-hand experience. Prior to his arrival at WKU as head coach, the Hilltoppers had lost 20 consecutive games before leading them to 14 wins combined during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Prior to his arrival as an assistant on the Stanford staff in 2007, the Cardinal had a record of 1-11 in 2006. In his three seasons in Palo Alto, the Cardinal were 17-20 including 8-4 in 2009 when he was the running backs coach who helped physical downhill rusher Toby Gerhart place second in the Heisman that season.

 Much as at his previous two coaching stops, Taggart has his hands full with a program that's only 8-16 in its previous two seasons (including losing 9 of 12 last season) in a location (Tampa) known for its fertile recruiting area. As with most programs that are hitting the reset button, it all starts with youth. By burning the redshirt off of true freshman QB Mike White (6-foot-4 inches, 186 pounds) late in the fourth quarter of the Bulls loss to Louisville last Saturday, he has become the ninth true freshman to play this season (three on offense and six on defense). White, who will be starting against the Cougars, is the fourth QB to start a game this season for the Bulls, the first being Matt Floyd (6'1, 202, RSo.) who started their first game versus McNeese State. Floyd, who had won the starting spot after summer camp, was replaced by walk-on Bobby Eveld (6'5, 217, Sr.) after an abysmal 9-of-20, 72 yard performance in a trouncing by FBS member McNeese State. Eveld has started 4 of the past 6 games including their only two victories over Cincinnati (26-20) and UConn (13-10). Even in the two wins Eveld threw for a combined 228 yards, connecting on 18 of his 46 passes with ZERO touchdowns and 1 interception. For the season Eveld hasn't even completed 40-percent of his 96 total passes for 455 yards with only 2 TDs. His replacement, and QB number three, was Steven Bench (6'2, 208, So.) The Notre Dame transfer looked even less impressive in the coaches' eyes as he completed barely 40-percent of his 64 passes (for 392 yards) with 3 interceptions to only 2 TDs. White completed only one of his five passes for five yards late in the game versus Louisville once the outcome was in hand. White, from Ft. Lauderdale's University High was Taggart's first commit for the 2013 class. He was actually called by then USF recruiting coordinator Larry Scott and offered a scholarship on the very same day that he led University to the Florida 3-A championship, leading a comeback from a 17-0 deficit over Madison to win 24-17. The three star athlete is a perfect fit for offensive coordinator Walt Wells pro-style scheme. White has the arm as he played in a vertical downfield passing scheme at University and with his decision making abilities, it's just a matter of time before he has this offense running efficiently.

Unfortunately for Bulls fans, there isn't much talent around the true freshman, or what Taggart refers to as "playmakers just needing to make plays" that are needed to execute any offense. They'll line up in a variety of pro-I formations with use of a fullback and tight end, with different players motioning and shifting in trying to confuse the opposing defense of the schemes intentions. If they can establish the run, and that's a huge if, they love to go to their tight ends off of play-action. No matter how you slice it though, the talent tells a tale of a very inept offense as the Bulls rank in the high 100s in just about every offensive category nationally, including scoring (14.3 points per game ranking them 120th), rushing offense (108.6, 112th), passing offense (132, 119th) and total offense (240.6, 123rd). Probably the most telling stat is third down conversion, with an abysmal 22-percent conversion rate which has them ranked 124th. This inability to convert third downs has led to the offense only holding onto the ball for just over 27-minutes of actual game time, ranking them at 115th, or one spot lower than the Coogs 114th. Ok, I changed my mind as the most telling offensive stat is not their third down conversion ranking, but the fact that they haven't scored an offensive TD in their past three games and have only scored SIX the ENTIRE SEASON.

One of the major problems leading to this inconsistency on offense has been, among others, small things such as their wide receivers inability to hang onto the football which leads us to yet another eye-popping stat; the four USF QBs have a combined 40.4 completion percentage which ranks them, yes you guessed it – dead LAST nationally. Their best receiver is Andre Davis (6'1, 202) and he only has 277 yards on 20 receptions with 1 TD. The junior has caught at least one pass in a school record 25 consecutive games. Behind Davis are Mike McFarland (6'5, 244, RJr.) and Sean Price (6'3, 249, So.) at tight end with McFarland reeling in 10 catches for 139 yards with Price adding 8 and 65 respectively. When the Bulls go with three wideouts look for speedster Derrick Hopkins (5'5, 158, RSr.) who also has 8 receptions for 68 yards with 1 TD and Chris Dunkley (6'0, 180, RJr.) who's added 49 yards on only 3 catches to contribute. Ryan Epps is a 235 pound fullback, who along with helping to block in the running game, can catch the ball out of the backfield as his 6 catches for 55 yards with 1 TD demonstrates.

Injuries have also hampered the Bulls offense, which happens to be the case for the Bulls rushing game as the student-athlete who would probably be deemed their only true "playmaker," Marcus Shaw, is a game time decision (as of this writing). The 5'9, 178 pound speedster has been out the past two games with a hamstring issue. In a testament to his big play abilities, his first touch of the season resulted in an 80-yard TD run versus McNeese. The senior is averaging 6.4 yards each time he rushes, pretty good for an offense that's averaging only 3.5 yards per rush overall (106th). Shaw leads the offense with 552 yards on 86 total carries with 2 TDs. His backup, Michael Pierre (5'10, 202), may also miss Thursday's game with a bum ankle. The redshirt junior has rushed 39 times for 116 yards this season. If Shaw and Pierre can't go, Darius Tice (5'10, 198, Fr.) and Willie Davis (5'9, 213, RJr.) will share duties in trying to establish the run for the Bulls. For the season the two have combined for 169 yards on 39 carries, Tice with 117 yards on 23 carries and Davis with 52 on 16.

An offense can only be as good as its offensive line allows, and this season the line for USF hasn't been very impressive as they've allowed 21 sacks through 6 games which ranks them 103rd nationally.  Darrell Williams (6'5, 287, Jr.) starts at LT with Brynjar Gudmundsson (6'4, 305, RSo.) next to him at LG. The center is Austin Reiter (6'3, RJr.), who's the runt of the litter at 273 pounds. The right side of the line consists of Dominque Threatt (6'1, 301, Fr.) at RG with Quinterrius Eatmon (6'6, 311, RJr.) at RT. If I'm Cougars defensive coordinator David Gibbs, I'm sticking with my game plan from the previous few games; stack the box to stop the running game and force White to beat you over the top in man coverage. The Cougars 9-man defensive line rotation of starters; Eric Braswell, Joey Mbu, Tomme Mark and Trevor Harris with Eric Eiland, B.J. Singleton, Jeremiah Farley, Tyus Bowser and Cameron Malveaux have done an excellent job in playing disciplined by maintaining their pass rush lanes or gap integrity throughout the season for the most part. By keeping contain, they've allowed their linebackers to shoot the gaps to stop opposing running backs and quarterbacks for loss of yardage or near the line of scrimmage for minimum gain. We all knew that Mike (middle) linebacker Derrick Mathews would lead the defense as the all-around defender that he's become over the last two-plus seasons, so his leading the defense this season in tackles (67 with 46 solo) along with 5 tackles-for-loss, 3 sacks, 2 recovered fumble and 1 interception (returned 29 yards for a TD) is no surprise. The other two new starters however, have been surprises in Will (weakside) linebacker Efrem Oliphant and Sam (strongside) backer Steven Taylor. Oliphant wasn't even a starter as summer camp began, but today he's leading the team with 8 tackles-for-loss and 2 forced fumbles as he's using his aggressiveness to become a ferocious hitter. Taylor has impressed me with his cover ability as the redshirt freshman is tied for second on the team with 5 passes defended as he's often in coverage against tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. He'll have an important role against the Bulls as they like to use their tight ends in the middle of the field against zone coverage. The play of the front-7 has led to opposing teams rushing for only 157 yards per game, which is only 58th nationally, but if this type of run defense holds throughout the rest of the season that ranking will be the Cougars best since allowing opponents to rush for only 140 yards per game (ranking them 48th) ‘way back' in 2007.

Depending on the type of pressure the front-7 puts on White, I don't expect the Cougars secondary to have a very busy evening, but anything can happen when you're dealing with a true freshman QB. Corner back William Jackson started his first game last week from his usual nickel back spot taking over for Thomas Bates, though this week Bates is listed as starter with Jackson backing him. On the other side, Zach McMillian is listed as starter with Turon Walker backing him, as was listed last week. While Jackson wasn't picked on as much, more than a few passes were thrown Walker's way and the JC transfer rewarded Gibbs with 2 interceptions. Look for all 4 corners to rotate throughout the rest of the season with the corner that has the "hot hand" receiving the playing time in the fourth quarter of any close games from here on out.

When the season began, Gibbs spoke of simplifying the defense so the players didn't have to think while out on the field. Thought causes players to react slower than if they were just playing on instincts alone. I can imagine Gibbs in his first team defensive meeting saying something along the lines of, "See this? It's a football. It's your job to bring it to me each Saturday!" Safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald have taken that philosophy to heart as Stewart leads the defense in turnovers created with 8 (4 fumble recoveries, 2 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions) with McDonald second with 4 (3 interceptions and a fumble recovery). Both play with the type of instincts every defensive coordinator loves as they are always around the ball. Even at a diminutive 5'9, 192 pounds, Stewart fears nobody on the field and this fearlessness shows as Gibbs will have him playing as the eighth man in the box against physical run first offenses. The sophomore free safety can play in coverage though as he, McDonald, Bates and Taylor all are second on the team with 5 passes defended, one behind McMillian's 6. With the Cougars getting out in front of opponents so often forcing them to abandon their run first mentality, the defense has been thrown on a lot this season and is 111th nationally in allowing 282 passing yards per game. Overall they've allowed 440 total yards of offense which is 95th. Under Gibbs the defense has allowed yards from the 20 to the 20, but has forced 27 turnovers this season as their Plus-20 margin is FIRST nationally. Most importantly, the D is allowing only 22.3 points per game through 7 games, ranking them 32nd nationally which lines up with the defense of the magical 2011 team which only allowed 22.2 points per game.

USF first year defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan brings almost 20 years of pro experience to Tampa and like Taggart, has an "old-school" mentality when it comes to defense. The Bulls use multiple fronts but Bresnahan's favorite, and what you'll probably see a lot of Thursday night, is what he refers to as his "33 package," which is a modified 3-3-5 stack defense that uses 3 down linemen, 3 linebackers and 5 defensive backs. The major emphasis is to create confusion on where a potential blitz is coming from, with combo man/zone coverages behind it. And make no mistake about it; Bresnahan will be bringing the pressure as he doesn't yet have the talent to have his defense just sit back to be picked apart by opposing QBs. Last week versus Louisville marked the third straight game in which the USF defense has posted nine or more tackles for loss. The Bulls 5 sacks and 11 TFL accounted for a minus 62 yards for the Louisville offense.  

The Bulls are only allowing 378 total yards per game (40th), 156 rushing (57th) and 222 passing (50th). Their defensive front is led by Aaron Lynch (6'6, 244, So.) at one defensive end spot. The transfer from Notre Dame has 6 tackles-for-loss, 2 sacks and a fumble recovered in which he returned for 44 yards, showing much athleticism on that 6-foot-6 inch frame. Being so tall I would have thought he would have more passes batted down, but he's only got one so far on the season. I'm sure he'll be looking to add more Thursday against a Cougars offense that emphasizes to its QBs to get the ball out quickly in order to avoid pressure. Alongside Lynch at one defensive tackle spot is Luke Sager (6'3, 275, RSr). Though he may be undersized for a tackle his motor is non-stop as his 8 tackles-for-loss attests. When they go with 4 down linemen, Elkino Watson (6'2, 293, Jr.) uses his girth in the middle in trying to clog the rush lanes. Julius Forte (6'2, 253, Sr.) is the other defensive end who tries to use his quickness in getting to the QB. He's also used in zone drops as he has both one interception and pass breakup on the season. Playing at home in the Tampa heat, Bresnahan usually rotates in 8 to 9 linemen, with Ryne Giddens (6'3, 253, RSr.) coming off the bench to lead the team in sacks with 4 and second in tackles-for-loss with 7. James Hamilton (6'2, 308, So.), Anthony Hill (6'4, 281, Sr.) and Tevin Mims (6'3, 246, Sr.) round out the undersized but athletic defensive line rotation.

This South Florida defensive front will be battling a Houston offensive line that's coming off perhaps its best game of the season. The Coogs line, from left to right of DeAnthony Sims (6'3, 320, Sr.), Rowdy Harper (6'6, 295, Jr.), Bryce Redman (6'1, 285, Jr.), Kevin Forsch (6'3, 307, Sr.) and Zach Johnson (6'6, 301, So.) lead the way for an offense averaging 42 points per game (10th), 497 yards of total offense (17th) behind 325 yards through the air (17th) and 172 rushing (62nd). This line will also be trying to keep freshman sensation John O'Korn clean so he can operate the Coogs ‘Air Raid' as effectively as he did last week in a 49-14 victory on the road at Rutgers in which he passed for a career high 364 yards, connecting on 24 of his 30 passes with 5 TDs with 0 interceptions. For the season O'Korn is connecting on 63-percent of his passes with a ridiculous 19 TDs to only 4 interceptions. The true freshman is showing the type of toughness and patience that's reminding a lot of Coogfans of their last great QB, Case Keenum (though the youngster has a few years to go before he's fully entrenched in the same stratosphere as the Houston Texans current starting QB). The way O'Korn can take a shot from a defender, stay on his feet and break contain ALL while keeping his eyes downfield to find a receiver for a huge gain has been incredible. And if O'Korn isn't ‘wowing' fans enough, fellow true freshman Greg Ward Jr. adds to the excitement, particularly with his feet. The Tyler native uses his speed and quickness as the perfect changeup to the pocket passing O'Korn, with offensive coordinator Dough Meacham learning how and when to use Ward more effectively each week. Against Rutgers, Ward led the offense to TWO TD drives, one in the second quarter giving the Coogs a 14-7 lead in which he rushed 3 times for 37 yards and the second rushing 5 times for 47 yards, with most of the calls being QB draws, zone read option keepers or bootleg rollouts.

Of course both freshmen are having such a great seasons because the offense is running the ball better than it has been in years behind sophomores Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow. The speedier Jackson averages 68 yards per game with 4 TDs on the ground and the more physical Farrow has added 58 yards per game (with 3 TDs) in his five games. Jackson is listed as ‘day-to-day' as of this writing with a head injury he received last week so Kent Brooks (37 yards on 9 carries) and the bowling ball like Justin Hicks (95, 21 with 2 scores) will be asked to fill in.

Assigned to stopping both the Cougars run game and pressuring the QBs will be up to the Bulls linebacking trio of DeDe Lattimore (6'1, 237, RSr.) in the middle, Reshard Cliett (6'2, 220, RJr.) at the Sam and Nigel Harris (6'0, 190, Fr.) at the Will. If the Coogs want to be successful on offense, they'll have to get a hat on Lattimore, who much like the Cougars Mathews, is usually in on almost every play as he leads the defense with 60 tackles (including 5 for loss), 2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries and an interception. Also like Mathews, Lattimore loves to survey what the offense is doing before attacking the line of scrimmage, usually on a delayed run or pass blitz. Harris and Cliett are third and fourth in tackles with 34 and 30 respectively, with each having 3 TFL. With his responsibilities in the Bulls zone pass coverage, Cliett also has an interception and 2 pass breakups with Harris adding a forced fumble.

If USF can't pressure O'Korn/Ward, look for the frosh QBs to have a field day as most of the Bulls defensive zone drops were too deep versus Louisville last Saturday as the middle of the field was wide open, particularly for the types of crossing patterns that the Cougars receivers love to run. If the Coogs can get an early running game established, this will pull in the Bulls linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage, opening up the mid and deep sections of the field even more for slot receivers Deontay Greenberry (842 yards on 58 receptions with 8 TDs through the air) and Daniel Spencer (543, 31 and 5). Outside receivers Demarcus Ayers and Aaron Johnson had nice games filling in for injured starter Larry McDuffey (who's still out with a concussion) as both caught their first collegiate TD passes last weekend. The other outside receiver, Xavier Maxwell (313, 21, 2) didn't have a catch last week but could find a pass or two come his way on a post rout as well as Markeith Ambles, who has yet to find much success early in his career dropping more than a few passes. This after all the hype after transferring from Western Arizona JC (after originally signing with Southern Cal). The South Florida secondary will surely be tested Thursday night but they look to have the athleticism needed led by safety Mark Joyce (5'10, 200, Sr.) who is second on the defense with 39 tackles and first in interceptions with 2. Nate Godwin (5'10, 196, Fr.) is the other safety with Jaquez Jenkins (6'2, 190, RSr.), Kenneth Durden (6'0, 173, RSo.) and Brandon Salinas (5'11, 170, Sr.) at corner. Fidel Montgomery (6'1, 185, Sr.) is the nickel back and has 28 tackles.

Sadly for the Bulls, their best offensive player might be their kicker, Marvin Kloss, who's connected on 10 straight field goals after missing his first attempt of the season. The Cougars Richie Leone must keep up his excellent punting in order to pin the Bulls as deep in their own territory as possible, making it even more difficult for an inept offense to drive the length of the field in order to score. Both teams are in the Top-25 nationally as far as opponents punt returns are concerned, with the Cougars being first and the Bulls 23rd (allowing only 4 yards per return).

In all, Houston is more than a ten point favorite (depending on what service you use) versus South Florida with good reason – they're simply much better in every phase of the game. The only way I see the Bulls contending in front of an ESPN national audience is if the Coogs plays down to the level of competition, including making mistakes that have plagued them all season such as committing penalties at inopportune times and dropping passes.

Final Prediction: Houston 49 South Florida 3

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