Game 12: South Florida (7-4, 5-2) at Central Florida (0-11, 0-7) (I-4 Corridor Clash Rivalry)
When/Where: Thursday (Thanksgiving) November 26th at 7:30 p.m. ET- Bright House Networks Stadium (Orlando, FL)
Radio: USF-IMG Network (820 AM)/www.GoUSFBulls.com
All-time series: USF leads 4-2.
Last Meeting: Last Year. UCF won 16-0 in Tampa.
-USF getting props from around the nation. Received 1 vote in AP Top 25 poll for first time since 2011. FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher on USF: "South Florida, as we're finding out, wasn't a bad football team," Fisher said. "I knew that coming in. I knew South Florida was fixin' to get really good. They may win and go to their conference championship game now. They've beat really good teams..." Willie Taggart on recognition: "We wanted people saying good things about USF Football. It's gratifying to know the plan you put in place is starting to work."
-South Florida winners of six out of last seven contests. Best record after October 1st since joining a conference in 2003.
-65-27 victory Cincinnati last Friday was biggest win over conference opponent in program history. Defensive Coordinator Tom Allen on victory: “The offense was on fire and our defense was creating takeaways and giving them fits. We just really couldn’t ask for any better way to start a game, especially when you come off such a big win.”
-Can still clinch AAC East with win/Temple loss to Uconn.
-Moved from 64th to 40th in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings this week.
-Gulf Coast offense now 12th in the nation in rushing at 236.9 ypg. Averaging 6.1 yards per play. Set program record for most rushing yards in a season with 2,640.
-Marlon Mack: 175 carries, 1,171 yds, 8 TD, 6.7 ypc, 117 ypg. Leads AAC in rushing. Program record seven 100+ yard games this season. 203 yards away from USF single season record.
-Rodney Adams: 34 catches, 660 yards, 8 TD. Single season record for most receiving touchdowns in program history. 75 yards short of setting season yardage record.
-Quinton Flowers: Passing-60.4 completion pct., 1,841 yds, 18TD, 8 INT. Rushing- 796 yards, 8 TDs.
-Deatrick Nichols: Leads team with 4 INTs. Named AAC Defensive Player of the Week for 2 INT performance vs. Bearcats. Allen on Nichols: “He had a phenomenal game. The thing he does is he studies film better than anybody that I’ve had in the back end,” Allen said. “Therefore, he anticipates and can jump routes. The pick-6 he got was because of film study.”
-On the verge of going winless for second time in George O’Leary era. Haven’t won since last year’s USF game.
-Interim head coach Danny Barrett took over for O’Leary who resigned in late October.
-Hired former USF Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan to the same position in the offseason.
-Knights rank near the bottom of the nation in nearly every offensive and defensive category. Dead last in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings.
-Knights offense only averaging 14.9 ppg (121st). 4.1 yards per play (121st). 128th (dead last) in yards per rush (2.5) and rushing yards per game (71.3).
-UCF defense giving up 39.2 ppg (116th), 484.4 ypg (116th), and 6.6 yards per play (119th).
-QB Justin Holman: 52.2 completion pct., 1,258 yards, 8 TDs/12 INTs. Listed as probable for Thursday due to ankle injury.
-RB C.J. Jones: 88 carries, 334 yards, 1 TD. Leads Knights in rushing.
-WR Tre’Quan Smith: Leads receivers with 45 catches, 622 yards and 4 TDs.
-DT Jamiyus Pittman: 42 tackles, 5 sacks.
-LB Domenic Spencer: Leads team with 89 tackles and 8 TFLs. Told Orlando Sentinel that the Knights will be back in 2016: "They'll be conference champions next year. Yes, it's a bold statement. I'm proud, I'm going to be an alum and in the spring I'm going to be proud that they're going to be conference champions next year. I have so much faith in the world in them."
One year can change a lot of things. One year, you’re in a certain position. 365 days later, the tables have turned. That’s exactly where both South and Central Florida find themselves heading into their Thanksgiving season finale, the I-4 Corridor Clash (still referred by many as the War on I-4).
Going back to 2014’s contest, the optics of UCF and their fan base taking control of Raymond James Stadium in a 16-0 shutout loss forced AD Mark Harlan and head coach Willie Taggart to make several changes that dramatically impacted the direction of the program. Paul Wulff and Chuck Bresnahan were replaced with David Reaves, Danny Hope, and Tom Allen running their respective units. The West Coast and 3-4 systems that the Bulls were running in 2014 were ousted for the spread and 4-2-5 attacks we see today. Finally Taggart, assuming the role of head play caller on offense, put his trust into sophomore Quinton Flowers to run the offense over the then battle-hardened Mike White, who decided to transfer to Western Kentucky after the conclusion of spring practice.
So far, those changes as a result of the UCF loss are paying major dividends. The Bulls are on the verge of setting a program record for most conference wins in a single season and are still very well in the mix for winning the division. Taggart explained why his guys are fired up for Thanksgivings matchup.
“It’s big because it’s the next game. It’s big because we have a goal that we want and we can’t reach that goal unless we win this ballgame. We’re so locked into doing that. We’re so close to where we want to get and we can’t have any hiccups right now.”
While the rivalry does bring out excitement and intensity, especially after last year’s season ending defeat at home, Taggart also explained the game by game his team has taken this time around to secure their eighth win of the season in the Bounce House.
“A lot of (our) guys played on that team last year, so they know what it was. I don’t have to talk about it. For us, it’s continuing to focus on the things that we’ve been focusing on all year long, and that’s getting USF better. That’s been our mindset and that’s been our approach every week. It’s not going to stop this week just because we’re playing UCF.”
The Bulls are not taking their familiar foes lightly as they more than anyone else that a rivalry game can bring out the best in an opponent, especially in a woeful year.
To say that Central Florida’s season has been a disaster would be a definitive understatement. Holding at least a share of the AAC title in last two seasons, the George O’Leary era in Oviedo has come to a crashing finish, with O’Leary himself stepping down midway through the season.
The Knights rank near the bottom in FBS in nearly every major statistical category and are considered by many to be the nation’s worst team of 2015. The season has been marked by blowouts at the hands of teams like Stanford, Houston, Cincinnati, and East Carolina, while a one point home loss to FCS Furman gives a great indicator for how fortunes have gone. It has been a far slide down the ladder for a program that was booking reservations to the Fiesta Bowl this time just two years ago.
Despite their struggles, UCF still have key playmakers who will be fired up on Thursday and carry the potential to keep the Bulls on their toes. QB Justin Holman, who showed promise last season in replacing Blake Bortles as the starter, is listed as probable and has experience in beating USF. WR Tre’Quan Smith, replacing standout Breshad Perriman, has done well all season long in an otherwise anemic offense, catching for over 600 yards. Senior Domenic Spencer, who was part of the 2013 Fiesta Bowl team and has never lost to the Bulls, has thrived in Bresnahan’s 3-4, leading the team by a wide margin with 89 tackles.
Taggart himself knows what it’s like to be on the other side with a struggling team and is certainly not overlooking UCF for one second.
"They've got some talent on their team. They've got guys trying to make it work, but they're just going through a tough time."
Keys to a USF victory:
The key for a red hot USF team on Thanksgiving is simple. Do not get too caught up in the emotions of the Corridor Clash and execute like they have been doing for the past two months. It sounds cliché, but in a game in which the Bulls are playing against players they are all too familiar and even played in their upbringings, they cannot afford to overlook a desperate, winless opponent. Senior defensive end Shawn Hill made this very clear during Tuesday’s press conference.
“We’re not going to take these guys for granted,” Hill said. “We don’t care what their record is or anything like that.”