This is the week that everyone circled on their calendars. The Florida State Seminoles are coming back to Tampa this week, and the Bulls are looking forward to taking another crack at the 13th-ranked team on national television. Last season the Seminoles took control of the game in the second half off a controversial targeting call, ultimately deflating any kind of comeback the Bulls were hoping for and losing 34-17.
This is the last game that the two teams have scheduled against each other for upcoming years with the Seminoles holding a 2-1 lead in the series —with USF’s win coming on the road in Tallahassee during the 2009 season.
This will arguably be the biggest game in the USF football program’s 20-year history. The timing could not be more favorable for the Bulls to prove themselves on a national broadcast; with the program in arguably the best shape it’s ever been in and is actively pursuing a spot in the Big 12 conference.
This game will without a doubt draw the largest attendance at a USF home game since the last time FSU came to Raymond James Stadium, which just so happens to be the highest attended home game in USF history at 69,383.
Familiar faces from last season’s game will be returning, including junior running back Dalvin Cook who had a career day, pounding the rock for 266 yards and three touchdowns on 30 touches. Cook’s display of force still haunts the Bulls’ defense as both defensive captain Auggie Sanchez and head coach Willie Taggart put emphasis on properly tackling the bruising back.
“You got to stop four. I think everyone want to go out there and you don’t want four to beat you,” said Sanchez about Cook. “That was our mindset set last year and he beat us…he beat us last year by himself. Him and that offensive line, they killed us and I think he’s still capable of doing that.”
Cook started the season as a preseason Heisman favorite, but has since been usurped by the dynamic Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. While the running back may not be playing up to preseason expectations, he is still no slouch on the field as Cook is currently averaging 115 all-purpose yards per game.
While Cook may be the biggest name on the field this Saturday, all eyes will be on the Seminoles’ redshirt freshmen quarterback Deondre Francois, as he will look to bounce back from last week’s 63-20 loss to Louisville. Francois showed the nation his ability to be mobile out of the pocket during the Seminoles’ season opening win against Ole Miss, rushing for 59 yards on nine attempts.
The young quarterback has also proven to be vulnerable when under pressure, having already fallen victim to 10 sacks this season. Taggart explained the importance of adding pressure to young quarterback.
“We’ve got to do a great job of rushing the lanes, rushing up the field and contain him in the pocket and not allowing to get outside the pocket,” said Taggart. “Do a great job of coverage so he can’t throw it to those receivers that they have.
"They have some speed out there, guys that can go the distance. It’s not reinventing the wheel or anything; we just got to go out there and play Bull Shark defense and if we play Bull Shark defense to the best of our ability then that’ be good enough for us.”
One of the issues that plagued USF during last season’s game was the offense’s inability to sustain drives and manage the clock. Last season’s game the Bulls’ were in a state of transition, implementing both the “Gulf Coast” offense and the “Bull Shark” defense at the same time and trying to get the players to buy into the new system.
The team has found success in the systems that the coaching staff has put into place since that game, averaging 48 points in their last seven games dating back to 2015.
“Last year was the second game and even in that game we weren’t going fast and everybody wasn’t necessarily sure about what they were doing,” said Taggart about last season’s loss to FSU and the evolution of the offense. “We were trying to be really simple in what we asked our guys to do.
"You can tell as the season went on our guys got comfortable with what they were doing and started to play a lot better…having that experience and going through last year and the first three games of this season running the offense, it should help us because our guys understand exactly what to do, they know how to do it better than what we did at that time last year.”
Junior running back Marlon Mack, who had a modest game last years against the Seminoles in comparison to his previous outings, echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“I’ll say one thing that is different about the team this year is that we do have the confidence that we do,” said Mack. “We trust in the offense. Quinton, that guy, he’s a better quarterback now than he was last year. Guess you can say we’ve got more confidence… the offense is better than we played them that year.”
While the Bulls know that their opponent this week is widely considered to be the toughest on their schedule, they also know that it’s just another game that they need to win. The team isn’t even really reviewing their win against FSU from 2009, trying to draw so inspiration. This team doesn’t want to be compared to those from previous season, they want to stand alone.
“We’re not taking this game any different than any other game,” said Taggart about preparing the team mentally for this game. “When we weren’t winning and it was tough to find a win over here, you try to use those way to motivate your guys to go out and win a ball game and with our football team now, I don’t think we have to do those things.
"Our guys understand what it takes to win ball games; they have to have a great week of practice, a great week of preparation and then go out and play their absolutely best against this opponent to go out and get what we want. We don’t need a miracle or anything like that. We got out and play football like we know how to play football.”