Dennis Akers

South Florida takes aim at matching a program best start against the Connecticut Huskies

The Bulls will look to match the program’s best start when they play against UConn, but could find the Huskies defense to be stingier than expected.

The South Florida Bulls will be hosting their conference rival Connecticut Huskies this weekend as USF looks for its fifth straight win UConn and to stay undefeated in the AAC while matching the program’s best start to a season. With a win against UConn, the Bulls would be eligible for their second consecutive bowl game.

After picking up their first win against the Cincinnati Bearcats last week, UConn has evened out their overall win/loss ratio, but still picked up two losses from a then sixth ranked Houston and a pre-ranked Navy, with both losses on the road. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they will be traveling again to play against another top offense that is averaging over 44 points per game.

Last season the Bulls came out of Hartford with a 28-20 win that saw running backs Marlon Mack and D’Ernest Johnson, along with quarterback Quinton Flowers total 261 yards on the ground. This year, the Bulls’ rushing attack is more effective as it has totaled the sixth most yards in the nation and is third in the nation in touchdowns. After last week Mack had accumulated 2,907 career rushing yards and is aiming to break the 3,000 yard barrier.

Mack could find himself in trouble against the Huskies’ defense that has managed to give up only 593 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. In fact, UConn held the Bearcats’ running game to only two yards on 22 attempts.

Even with UConn’s impressive rush defense, don’t expect the Bulls to shy away from what has made the offense as successful as it is. The offensive line has opened lanes for their backs to run through and have held opposing defenses to only seven sacks on the season.

“Once again, it’s thanks to my O-line. Without them, I don’t do what I do or get what I get,” said Mack, praising his offensive line after the win over ECU.

A vaunted rushing defense has not been able to help the Huskies stop opponents through the air though. Their passing defense has given up the most yards in the conference and third most in the nation, but is closer to the middle of the pack in passing touchdowns surrendered.

Flowers will look to take advantage of the Huskies’ lack of air defense by throwing the ball often. Since the loss to Florida State in week four, Flowers has worked on his accuracy and spreading the ball around to his receivers. In the past two games, Flowers has connected on 67.2 percent of his passes compared to the 51.7 percent that he had in the first four games.

The uptick in accuracy is most likely a result of Flowers targeting the center of the field with wide receiver Rodney Adams; utilizing his other big receivers Ryshen Bronson and Tyre McCants; and tossing the ball to Johnson who has the ability to turn short passes into big gains. The only person who appears to have seen less opportunities on the field is wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. He continues to get targets as a deep threat and is tied for second on the team in receptions with 14, but has only pulled in four receptions for 39 yards in the past three games and has not seen the end zone since the season opener against Towson.

The Connecticut offensive unit isn’t turning any heads either, scoring the least amount of points in the conference with a total of 119. As a whole, the Huskies have the 82nd ranked offense in the nation, but has a true playmaker in senior wide receiver Noel Thomas.

Thomas leads his team with 55 receptions and 631 receiving yards ranking fourth and ninth respectively in the nation. This year, he is averaging just over nine receptions and 105.2 yards per game. Last year Thomas was able to rack up 94 yards on seven receptions against the Bulls.

The other threat that the USF defense has to keep an eye on is UConn redshirt junior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs. The mobile quarterback is averaging 41.8 yards per game on the ground and 213.7 yards in the air, but has only connected with his receivers in the end zone five times. In 2015, Shirreffs ran for 100 yards and a touchdown while also throwing the ball for 365 yards and a touchdown on 28 completions.

“They find ways to make plays,” said Taggart when discussing the Connecticut offense during this week’s press conference. “They have a very talented receiver that finds ways to get the ball to. The quarterback, I think he’s a heck of a competitor. He loves to play the game; just watch how he plays. I remember him from last year, he had a pretty good game against us last year. He’s a guy who can first downs with his feet as well.”

Kickoff to the game will be at 7:oo p.m. (ET) and will be broadcasted on the CBS Sports Network.


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