Game 8 Preview; South Florida

After an off-week, your University of Houston Cougars jump into the meat of their American Athletic Conference schedule as they travel to Florida to take on the South Florida Bulls in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. Game time is set for 3pm (CST) and will be televised nationally on ESPNews.

When one thinks of high octane fast paced offenses in this new age of spread up tempo college football, one would NOT think of the South Florida Bulls, led by head coach Willie Taggart. In his second season in Tampa Taggart is accumulating a lot of talent from the fertile Florida recruiting grounds, but has little to show for it thus far besides a 5-15 record (3-5 this season and 2-2 in conference play). The recruiting efforts may pan out down the line as their roster definitely passes the “looks” test as the Bulls appear to look the part of a team on the rise, even though the stats my not necessarily show it. While averaging only 21.1 points per game (108th nationally), the Bulls rush for only 119 yards per game (109th) and pass for 188.5 (102nd). Their 307.5 yards of total offense per game rank them 120th, out of 128 Football Bowl subdivision (FBS) teams.

Taggart cut his teeth scheme wise under Jim Harbaugh; coaching with him at Western Kentucky from 1999-2001 (after a record setting career as a Hilltopper quarterback from 95-98), and then at Stanford as the running backs coach from 2007-09 before becoming the head coach at WKU from 2010 through the 2012 seasons. During those 3 seasons Taggart led his alma mater to a 16-20 record with 14 of those wins coming during the 2011 and 12 seasons, after winning just 4 games the 3 previous seasons combined. As with Harbaugh, Taggart loves playing “old man football,” as does his offensive coordinator (and offensive line coach), Paul Wulff; who also not coincidentally spent the two previous seasons as an offensive line assistant with the San Francisco 49ers under Harbaugh before joining Taggart’s staff to begin the 2013 season. They run a lot of their plays out of pro-style formations under ‘21’ or ‘22’ personnel (2 running backs and 1 or 2 tight ends), using various player shifts and motions to overload one side of the line for a numbers advantage in the running game. The Bulls offensive unit won’t try to trick their opponents as they’ll run right at them downhill between the tackles using counters, traps and sweeps when running outside. After “pounding the rock” over and over Wulff will have his QBs take shots deep off of play-action, which they’re very effective at.

The Cougars defense, under coordinator David Gibbs will have to play very disciplined football in order not to bite off of that play-action. Overall this season Gibbs unit has been playing inspired football, even carrying the team, as they’re ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to 17.9 points per game. The one problem the Coogs defense has had thus far is South Florida’s strength, IE the running game as they’re allowing opponents to rush for 149.7 yards per game (52nd) while holding opposing QBs to only 177.9 yards passing (11th). Their total of 327.6 total yards allowed per game ranks them 19th.

Leading the Bulls offense may be a question mark as their starter, Mike White (6’4, 211, So.) was benched after fumbling an astonishing 4 times last week in a loss to Cincinnati. While losing only 2 of those fumbles, the pocket passing White also tossed 2 interceptions forcing Taggart’s hand in favor of Steven Bench (6’2, 215, Jr.). The veteran tossed 2 TDs against the Bearcats while completing 9 of 14 passes for 147 yards (24 of 51 overall for 319 yards through 3 games). According to various Tampa online reports, Taggart will let White, Bench and true freshman Quinton Flowers (6’0, 217) compete this week before naming a starter. White, who passed for 311 yards last season in his first game ever, has completed only 48.8 percent of his 166 passes and isn’t even averaging 150 yards passing per game (147.8). He’s tossed only 6 TDs to his 7 interceptions. He is averaging 14.6 yards per reception though meaning the Coogs secondary has to be aware not to get beat deep. As stated earlier, they’ll have to play disciplined not allowing themselves to peek into the backfield getting sucked up by play action allowing White to go over their heads. The wildcard in this game could be the dual threat Flowers, a four star recruit for the 2014 recruiting class according to Scout.com. He’s only played in 2 games this season behind the more established White and Bench as he’s completed 1 of 4 passes for 7 yards (with 2 of those passes being picked off), while rushing for 36 yards on 7 carries. With Taggart’s stated goal of making a bowl game this season I don’t see Flowers getting the start. Of course if Gibbs defense makes mincemeat of either White or Bench I wouldn’t be surprised in seeing the true freshman receiving snaps.

Whoever’s named the starter for the Bulls, their main target will be wide receiver Andre Davis (6’1, 207, Sr.), who’s just coming back into form off of a sternum injury suffered in their season opener. For the season Davis has caught 19 passes for 399 yards with 5 TDs. Again, notice the 21 yards per reception average. Luckily for Coogfans he’ll have to sit the first half after getting ejected for fighting against the Bearcats last week. One key for the game will be how the veteran wideout will matchup against the Cougars shut down corner, William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.), who has 22 tackles, 5 passes defended, 2 interceptions and 1 forced and recovered fumble this season. Jackson also has to sit out the first half of Saturday’s game as he was flagged for targeting during their last game two weeks ago against Temple. What makes Davis so great (as he holds 12 USF receiving records) is not only his speed to beat his man deep but his length to ‘high point’ balls, or being able to catch them at their highest point over opposing defensive backs. As for who will be throwing for USF, I wouldn’t count White out as he’s a fiery competitor who actually completes 60-percent of his passes with Davis in the lineup as the USF multiple record holder draws double teams allowing one-on-one coverage for other receivers. And as bad as White played against Cinci, he played just as good the previous week at Tulsa, completing 10 of 14 passes for 211 yards and 3 scores in the second half (all to Davis), in the biggest comeback in school history, overcoming a 27-7 first half deficit to win 38-30.

While great at running deep post routes, Davis is also used on shorter routes, especially over the middle on crossers, which clears out room for the Bulls other receivers; Rodney Adams (6’1, 190, So.), Deonte Welch (6’0, 215, Sr.) and tight ends Mike McFarland (6’5, 252, Sr.) and Sean Price (6’3, 250, Jr.), who’s listed as day-to-day with an ankle injury. Adams is their leading receiver in receptions with 20 (for 316 yards) with 2 scores while Welch has caught 14 balls for 165 yards. McFarland (175 yards on 17 receptions) and Price (115 on 10) are just as effective in the passing game as they are blocking as Wulff loves to try to matchup this athletic duo against either smaller safeties they can run over or linebackers they can outrun down the seam. With Jackson out of the Cougars defensive backfield for the first half, the job to contend with the other USF wideouts will be up to nickel back Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, So.), Turon Walker (5’10, 190, Sr.) and Howard Wilson (6’1, 176, Fr.). While B. Wilson has played surprisingly well, starting 3 games when Gibbs decided to start his nickel group, accumulating 18 tackles in 7 games, Walker has not. After contributing plenty as a part time starter last season, Walker has seen his playing time diminish especially with the emergence of the true freshman, Howard Wilson, who’s intercepted 2 passes, defended 2 passes and added 12 total tackles including 1 for loss. As usual, free safety Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Jr.) will line up in the slot against whoever South Florida decides to place there, whether it be their massive tight ends or the shifty Davis. Stewart will also have run responsibilities lining up in the box as “Worldwide Swag” has a high football IQ that always places him around the ball as his 30 tackles, 5 passes defended and 2 interceptions attest. His partner at strong safety, Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Jr.), is as equally adept at causing havoc all over the field, adding 36 total tackles, 4 passes defended, 2 interceptions, 2 forced and 2 recovered fumbles.

Getting to the Bulls bread-and-butter (their running game), they have two backs who are mainly responsible for setting up their play action passing game; true freshmen Marlon Mack (6’0, 195) and D’Ernest Johnson (5’10, 207). Mack leads the American and is 29th nationally averaging 97.6 yards per game (781 yards on 145 carries) to go along with 8 TDs. He’s stout between the tackles as he’s patient in allowing cutback lanes to open up and has the vision and lateral quickness to “stop on a dime,” make the quick cut and bounce back outside against more aggressive defenses such as the Cougars possess. He only debuted against Western Carolina in their season opener rushing for 275 yards with 4 TDs. The bowling ball like Johnson is more of a straight line runner who’s rushed for 124 yards on 34 games with limited playing time, though it’s increased the past few games. The two backs are also effective out of the backfield in the passing game as they’ve been used on slip screens and wheel routes for long gainers. Fullback Kennard Swanson (6’0, 253, R-Fr.) is a load for the Bulls backs, whether it be blocking on a ‘lead-Iso’ play one-on-one against a linebacker, or being used out of the backfield on you guessed it, play action, as he’s averaging over 16 yards on his 7 receptions this season.

The UH linebackers responsible for holing up this duo will be Sam (strongside) backer Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220, Sr.), Will (weakside) Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, So.) and Mike (middle) Elandon Roberts (6’0, 230, Jr.), who’s taking over for Derrick Mathews (6’0, 221, Sr.) who was lost for the season at Memphis on October the 11th with a knee injury. Look for Oliphant and Taylor to man the middle with more nickel packages being used by Gibbs despite USF’s downhill running tendencies. Oliphant plays with mean intentions, leading the defense with 74 tackles, including 5 for loss while adding 2 sacks and has been playing better in coverage lately contributing 2 interceptions when Gibbs has had him back in zone drops. Caleb Tucker (6’2, 230, R-Fr.), Mathew Adams (6’0, 208, Fr.) and D’Juan Hines (6’2, 208, R-Fr.) have also seen increased playing time and will continue to do so with Mathews out for the year. As stated earlier, the Coogs linebacking core will have to be careful not to over pursue or not get out of their assigned rush lanes or Mack will gash them on cutbacks for huge chunks of yardage.

This game, like all others, will be won in the trenches. The key matchup will be the Cougars defensive front versus a salty Bulls offensive line that returns four starters from last season and one that started five games in 2012; left guard Thor Jozwiak (6’4, 321, Jr.), who had to sit out last year due to heart surgery. The other returners along the line are left tackle Darnell Williams (6’5, 307, Sr.), center Austin Reiter (6’3, 296, Sr.), right guard Quinterrius Eatmon (6’6, 313, Sr.) and right tackle Brynjar Gudmundsson (6’4, 305, Jr.). While last seasons USF line averaged 297 pounds per man, this year’s squad is averaging 311. The added beef has not taken away their athleticism as they’ve only allowed 11 sacks this year, ranking them tied for 31st nationally. The Cougars defensive tackle duo of big Joey Mbu (6’1, 310, Sr.) and B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, So.) along with Jeremiah Farley (6’0, 281, Sr.) and Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Jr.) in reserve will have to hold up at the point of attack allowing their linebacking core to shoot the gaps in order to shut down the Bulls running game. While contributing 25 total tackles often lining up over the center (including 4.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks), the most overlooked part of Mbu’s game is his contributions in pass defense, as he’s gotten his big mitts up to deflect 4 passes and even caught an interception on a Singleton deflection earlier this season. Farley will be sorely missed next season upon graduation as he uses his limited snaps well in using his smaller frame to out-leverage his opponents on the interior to the tune of 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack and a fumble recovery. On the edge Eric Eiland (6’2, 225, Jr.) has really improved his play from Gibbs stand-up ‘rush backer’ position as he leads all the linemen with 29 tackles, one more than strong side defensive end Gavin Stansbury (6’4, 255, Sr.). Trevor Harris (6’4, 230, Sr.), Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, So.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, So.) have all added to the depth along the edge of the line with Harris’s 15 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and a sack standing out.

As much as has been made of USF’s starting QB, the Coogs have a relatively new starter themselves in Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, So.) after taking over for John O’Korn (6’4, 220, So.) against Memphis. In his two games as starter, Ward has completed over 75-percent of his passes (46 of 61) for 456 yards with 3 TDs to only 1 pick (his first pass at Memphis). Two weeks ago against Temple Ward completed 29 of his 33 passes, mainly on quick dump off passes or various types of screens, including the long lost ‘tunnel screen’ where an outside receiver catches the ball inside the hash marks in space with room to run. For the season Ward is completing 70-percent of his passes (57 for 81) for 580 yards. More importantly than the passing stats however, is what Ward’s added to the run game, which is very important to offensive coordinator Travis Bush and head coach Tony Levine. Against two top-25 ranked scoring defenses, the Coogs scored 28 and 31 points due to a run game that produced a combined 337 yards (166 at Memphis and 171 against Temple) due mainly to the threat of Ward’s dynamic playmaking ability running the ball, as shown by his 66-yard TD scamper at Memphis that should have been a sack. In his two games as starter Ward has rushed for 139 yards on 30 carries with a TD. The added zone read threat has forced opposing defensive coordinators to keep a man on Ward opening up the inside running lanes for backs Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Jr.) and Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Jr.). For the season both Farrow and Jackson average more than 5.5 yards per carry with Farrow leading with 437 total rushing yards with 4 TDs while Jackson has 338 and 3 respectively.

Trying to force Ward into becoming more of a passer will be the responsibility of Bulls defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan in his second season amongst his 26 total years in the coaching industry. Bresnahan employs a hybrid 3-4, 4-3 multiple front designed to confuse QBs as to where the blitz is coming from. The Bulls defensive front is big yet athletic as they definitely pass the “eye test” despite some not too impressive stats such as allowing 29.6 points per game (86th), 190.9 rushing yards (96th), 247.8 passing yards (87th) and of course 438.7 total yards (92nd). This may be a matchup of the “moveable object” versus the “resistible force” as the Cougars once mighty high octane up tempo offense is sputtering to a total of 28.1 points per game (80th), 158.9 rushing yards per game (71st), 222.3 passing yards (79th) for 381.1 total yards per game (85th), though they are improving as mentioned with Ward at the helm.

The Bulls down linemen are Eric Lee (6’3, 248, Jr.) and Elkino Watson (6’2, 291, Sr.) at the two starting defensive end spots, which are basically the same as tackles in a 4-3 front. Watson uses his explosiveness to shoot the gaps as he has 30 tackles including 6.5 for loss and 2 sacks while Lee adds 4.5 TFL among his 22 total from the opposite side. Demetrius Hill (6’3, 270, Jr.) and Derrick Calloway (6’2, 285, So.) get plenty of time in reserve as Hill adds 2.5 TFL along with 2 sacks while Calloway has 4.5 TFL with 3 sacks, leading the linemen. Plugging up the middle are nose tackles Todd Chandler (6’0, 321, Sr.) and Deadrin Senat (6’1, 300, R-Fr.), with Chandler’s 24 tackles and 2 fumble recoveries adding to an active athletic front. They’ll give the Cougars interior offensive line of Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Jr.), center Bryce Redman (6’2, 295, Sr.) and right guard Rowdy Harper (6’6, 295, Sr.) plenty of fits up front, as in disrupting rushing lanes, or run fits. Offensive tackles Travis Cross (6’4, 290, Jr.) on the left and Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Jr.) need to be careful of the games and stunts Bresnahan will have his line playing up front in order to create free rush lanes for his unit.

The Bulls linebacking core is active as a unit can be and is led by its two outside linebackers; Tashon Whitehurst (6’3, 225, Jr.) and Reshard Cliett (6’2, 235, Sr.). Whitehurst is a fundamentally sound tackler as he squares his shoulders up before taking his intended target down and adds 40 tackles. Cliett meanwhile leads the team with 4 sacks and 4 tackles-for-loss to Whitehurst’s 2 and 5 respectively. Auggie Sanchez (6’2, 240, R-Fr.) and Nigel Harris (6’2, 220, So.) are two hard hitting inside linebackers as Harris leads the nation with 5 forced fumbles to go with his unit leading 52 tackles. Sanchez played fullback last season so you know he loves to get physical, and adds 42 tackles and a forced fumble returned 21 yards for a TD.

Both Bulls inside linebackers will look to lay the wood to any Cougar receiver coming over the middle as they often drop back in zone coverage as Bresnahan rarely blitzes. Houston inside receivers, Deontay Greenberry (6’3, 200, Jr.) and Wayne Beadle (5’11, 183, Sr.) cannot have alligator arms against the Bulls as drops have killed the Coogs offense this season. Far too often this season either O’Korn or Ward have faced second and longs which have inevitably turned into third and longs, allowing opposing defenses to turn up the pressure on whomever the starter has been. Greenberry leads the team with 36 receptions for 465 yards with 3 TDs. If a successful running game is established early those Bulls dropping linebackers will be easing close to the line and can be had with the quick slant that Bush loves to dial up off of play-action, especially to Greenberry. Beadle only has 7 receptions for 48 yards but must find the holes in the Bulls zone coverages. A few changes have been made on the outside with Ward moving to QB full time, namely Markeith Ambles (6’2, 201, Sr.) starting alongside Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, So.). Ambles had his best game of the season versus Temple with 96 yards on 6 receptions a week after catching 2 passes for 40 yards and a TD at Memphis. He has the athleticism to go over smaller defensive backs covering him on the outside and the speed to gain YAC yardage over the middle versus bigger safeties and linebackers. For the season Ambles has 17 receptions for 233 yards with 3 TDs. While Ayers didn’t have a reception against Temple his production has been increasing lately as he’s caught 11 balls for 131 yards the two previous games versus UCF and at Memphis. For the season he has 16 receptions for 182 yards. Farrow and Jackson must also be continued to be used in the passing game out of the backfield, whether it be on screens, swing passes or wheel routes. For the season Jackson has 120 yards on 16 receptions and 2 TDs while Farrow adds 75 and 14. The wide receiver unit as a whole must continue to block better as Ward is more adept at throwing quick short passes, especially screens to the outside.

One stat that stood out while looking over USF’s defense was the fact that their two safeties were their leading tacklers, which is never a good thing despite how well they actually tackle. When your safeties are your leading tacklers that means opposing running backs and receivers are gaining too many yards before any defender can get there for the stop. Jamie Byrd (5’11, 184, Jr.) and Nate Godwin (5’10, 202, So.) have 61 and 60 tackles respectively with Byrd adding an interception and Godwin a fumble recovery. The Bulls top cover corner, Chris Dunkley (6’0, 188, Sr.), also isn’t afraid to get physical as he has a tackle-for-loss and a sack amongst his 16 total tackles, with a forced and recovered fumble. Though he has no interceptions he does lead the defense with 5 passes defended. Dunkley is coming off of an injury and was ejected during the first half of the Cinci game for targeting. He sat out the second half so he should be able to play on Saturday. Johnny Ward (6’0, 178, So.) adds 27 tackles, 3 passes defended, 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery from the other cornerback spot. He’s also a game time decision as he missed the Cinci game with an ankle sprain. If Ward can’t go Lamar Robbins (6’2, 200, So.) and Kendall Sawyer (6’1, 180, Fr.) will get extensive playing time. Though both may be young they come in highly rated with Robbins already showing promise with a 46 yard “pick-six” already on his resume this season.

USF have a nice special teams duo with Mattias Ciabatti (6’0, 189, Jr.) punting and Marvin Kloss (6’0, 209, Sr.) at place kicker. Ciabatti is ninth nationally as he averages 45.2 yards per punt with 13 of his 46 punts being placed inside the opponents 20-yard line with another 13 being 50 yards or more. Kloss meanwhile, has connected on 10 of 12 field goals this season and 28 of 35 over the past 2 seasons. His upper body strength is as good as his lower body as he can bench press over 300 pounds. This game will feature two of the better place kickers in the nation as the Coogs Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Jr.) has connected on 13 of his 15 field goals this season and 19 of 21 going back to late last season. Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Jr.) must continue to get better at punting as he’s only averaging 38.2 yards on his 23 punts since taking over for Dylan Siebert (6’3, 220, Jr.) earlier in the season. In a paradox you would think USF’s punt coverage unit would be better than Houston’s with Ciabatti’s booming punts versus Piper’s low liners but that’s not the case as the Coogs are 24th nationally allowing only 4.2 yards per return while the Bulls rank 94th allowing 10.4 yards per. Special teams coordinator Jamie Christian has lauded special teams captain Earl Foster (6’0, 192, Jr.) as he, Mathew Adams and Howard Wilson have all taken their turns making tackles on the Coogs coverage units. A few mental breakdowns on long gainers have pushed Houston’s kickoff return unit to 93rd nationally as they allow 22.2 yards per return. The Bulls leading kickoff returners are Dunkley (24 yard return average on 17 returns) and Adams (19.2 on 5). D’Ernest Johnson has also returned a few kickoffs the past few games, 4 to be exact for a not so great 18.2 yard average. The Bulls punt returner is defensive back Hassan Childs (6’0, 188, So.) as he averages 7.6 yards on 7 total punt returns with Dunkley averaging 15 yards on 4 returns.

The Coogs return units have been nonexistent so far this season as Ayers only averages 18.1 yards on 23 kickoff returns, a year after averaging more than 27 during his true freshman season. With Ward at QB he’s also the punt returner, though he hasn’t actually returned a punt yet this season as he’s fair caught them or simply let them bounced, afraid of turning the ball over. The Bulls allow 10.4 yards per punt return (94th) so there are opportunities available for Ayers if he takes them. Kickoff return wise, the Bulls allow 20.7 yards per kickoff, ranking them 67th.

Keys to the game

Offensively the Coogs must establish the run early, setting up shorter second and third down situations. The Bulls will wear down if pounded between the tackles regularly being as young as they are on the defensive side of the ball. This will also set up play-action for Ward to go deep to Ambles, Ayers and Greenberry on the short slant over the middle for big plays.

Establishing the run will keep the chains moving and will eventually lead to scoring opportunities, which is the second key; redzone efficiency. The Coogs rank 111thh nationally scoring TDs on only 15 of 33 redzone opportunities (45-percent). Against Memphis and Temple however with Ward as a running threat they’ve scored 7’s (instead of 3’s) on 5 of 8 said opportunities, or a 63-percent success rate.

With the Cougars defense as efficient as it is if they gain an early lead the Bulls will be forced out of their game plan, which brings us to the third key; Score early, take control of the game and load the box against the Bulls forcing them to pass. Whichever QB the Bulls start his favorite play will probably be a handoff to Mack, but that’s more difficult when your team is down by multiple scores. The Coogs secondary must be alert no matter the score as they will be tested downfield, early and often.

The fourth key will be turnover margin as the Bulls are second nationally with 12 fumble recoveries and rank 53rd nationally with a plus-1 margin. Meanwhile all Coogfans know about the “Third Ward defense” as they rank 14th nationally with a plus-7 margin with the “Jack Boys,” the UH secondary, ranking third nationally with 14 interceptions.

The final key will be penalties, as the Bulls rank 86th and 84th in penalties per game (6.8) and average yards (60.4), with the Coogs 107th and 113th (7.9 and 71.9) respectively. Neither team has the talent to overcome costly penalties, the Temple game an example as two holding calls cost Farrow 80 yards and 2 TDs. Actually that was probably a bad example as the Coogs did overcome those mistakes to win but more likely than not those types of silly mistakes will cost them a win, especially on the road.

Final prediction

 Houston – 27 South Florida – 16


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