This week USF faces Cincinnati in a game that's eerily similar to last season at this point. The Bulls are 4-2 after dropping their first two BIG EAST contests, last year they were 3-3 after dropping their first two conference games. In both conference losses last year and this year the offense struggled on third downs and more importantly to score points.
With the Bulls staring at a 0-2 conference record and desperately needing a win just like last season, they face the Bearcats with QB Zach Collaros, RB Isaiah Pead, D.J. Wood, and their high flying offense.
Entering the contest last season the Bulls offense was missing in action, but against the Bearcats they showed up in a big way. After being down 0-3 at the end of the first quarter, the USF offense erupted for five touchdowns over a span of eight possessions starting in the second quarter in route to USF's 38-30 victory over the two-time defending Big East champion Cincinnati, who at the time won 13 straight BIG EAST games.
A big reason was the play of QB .B.J. Daniels who struggled early in the season, but had a breakout game against UC, throwing for 286 yards and two touchdowns while running for two more and gave the Bulls their first significant win under first year coach Skip Holtz.
Defensively, however, the Bulls had some problems. They held the Bearcats to just 78 yards rushing but gave up 512 through the air and had issues on fourth down. Cincy converted a fourth-and-six with a 32-yard TD pass to make it 31-23, and they kept their last touchdown drive alive by converting a fourth-and-eight in route to a score and cut the lead to 30-38. The Bulls finally held on Cincy's final fourth down, getting a heavy rush on backup quarterback Chazz Anderson to force an incompletion with just seven seconds remaining.
The victory snapped USF's two-game losing streak last season and gave the Bulls their first Big East win. This year the Bulls are looking to do the same, so let's take a look at the matchup:
After losing to Tennessee in their second game, Cincy (5-1) comes in riding a four-game winning streak. The Bearcats have outscored their opponents 155-44 in that stretch are 1-0 in Big East play after beating Louisville 25-16 in their last outing. At 4-2, but 0-2 in BIG EAST play, USF cannot lose another conference game at this point and keep even the slim hopes of getting a share of the conference title.
Cincy offense: The Bearcats have been a balanced offense, with 213.7 yards rushing per game and 208 passing. Isaiah Pead continues to be the horse that drives the Bearcats offense with 624 yards and 8 TDs. Senior QB Zach Collaros has rushed for 204 yards and 4 TDs while passing for 1,187 yards and 11 touchdowns
USF defense: After getting pushed around at PITT, the Bulls took a big step forward against UCONN, recording seven sacks and the defense didn't give up a touchdown as the Huskies only TD came of a fumble return.
Cincy defense: The Bearcats have had two solid defensive performances with a shutout of Miami of Ohio and against Louisville they did not allow an offensive touchdown. Cincinnati is allowing just 70.5 yards rushing per game, fourth-best in the country. The 16.5 points per game allowed ranks 15th in the nation. The pass rush was an area of concentration in the preseason and the Bearcats have produced 21 sacks through six games.
USF offense: The Bulls have the Big East's second-most productive offense, averaging 476.2 yards per game, but much of that came against Ball State, FAMU, and UTEP. In the two conference games they've averaged 382, but have had issues scoring. The Bulls scored only 27 points in two Big East games and are last in the league in scoring in conference games.
Keys to the Game:
--The Bulls must do everything they can to stop, or at least contain RB Isaiah Pead, who has all sorts of abilities and has rushed for a score in six consecutive games, while rushing for 151 yards his last game. If he runs wild, it will be a long day for the Bulls.
--USF must hold on third downs. The issue in the two conference losses was the inability to stop opponents on third down. Pitt and UCONN converted 16-of-33 tries against the Bulls, putting them in last place in the conference in third-down defense.
-- Offensively the Bulls must right the ship and put points on the board. Improving third down efficiency is a must to extend drives, and they need to improve in the red zone, settling for field goals won't do it to keep pace against Cincy's offense.
-- The Bulls have to play solid fundamental football. This means cutting down on penalties, which were a record high against UCONN in the Holtz era. On both sides the players have to execute the plays called, and all eleven must do their job. Whether it's running the right route or blocking the right guy on offense to playing the right assignment on defense.
-- It may sound cliché, but they need to be on the plus side of the turnover battle to win this game. Cincy has 19 takeaways and the Bulls must take care of the rock, especially when they're in the scoring zone. If they get into a scoring position they must capitalize if they want a victory. If they can get a few take-a-ways on defense and win the field position battle, it could dictate the game.Last year they found their mojo against Cincinnati, and if history is on their side, they'll be able to do the same this Saturday and get their season back on track.