TAMPA – Like last season USF hopes to quickly put a loss to Houston in the rearview mirror and get back on the winning track.
That means making sure last week’s loss to the Cougars doesn’t become something more than it is: one loss.
“The thing we have to do is be better prepared, be a focused football team and not let one game beat us twice,” said coach Charlie Strong during his weekly press conference.
Taking care of business Saturday afternoon against visiting Tulane (3:30 CBSSN/820 AM) is all that should matter for the Bulls, who, like last season, still have a shot to play for the right to go to the conference championship.
Of course, this USF (7-1/3-1 AAC) team is much different than last year’s. The Bulls have 11 first-year players (six freshmen and five redshirt freshmen) that have started games and a handful more that have seen action. Until last week those players had never lost a game at the collegiate level and this week it is incumbent upon the older players to make sure the younger ones keep their collective heads up.
“Forget about it fast,” said redshirt junior receiver Stanley Clerveaux, when asked about the message to the younger players. “Get to work and don’t dwell on it. Get ready for the game on Saturday because we still have everything in front of us. We want to be undefeated, but we are still playing for a lot of things. Just get ready to play Tulane.”
The Bulls do indeed have much to play for. A shot at going to their first conference championship game is still on the table. However, that won’t happen if the defense continues to falter. The unit was downright scorched (682 yards) at Houston and has fallen to 108th nationally in allowing 444 yards per game. That includes allowing 234 yards per game rushing to rank 121st among the 129 FBS teams.
Many of Houston’s big plays came on third down. Time and again through the first seven games Strong talked about winning on first down. That meant forcing teams into third-and-long situations, which the Bulls did last week. Houston, though, converted 13-of-18 third downs and on nine of their successful conversions the Cougars needed at least seven yards.
“When you see (13-of-18 on third down) you are going to think that a lot of those third downs were third-and-one and third-and-two,” said Strong. “They weren’t third-and-ones and third-and-twos, they were third-and-sevens and third-and-eights. Any time you get into that situation you expect to get off the field. We didn’t.”
Strong said a lot of mistakes made by the defense can be corrected. That was echoed by safety Mekhi LaPointe.
“Specifically, we have to pay closer attention to detail,” said the redshirt freshman, who has worked his way into a starting role. “There was nothing really that big that led to their touchdowns. Just little things. It’s really about reading your keys, reading the quarterback’s eyes and stuff.”
The Green Wave (3-5/2-2) made a change at quarterback last week starting grad transfer Justin McMillan in their 24-17 win at Tulsa. The former LSU backup is a dual-threat and a better passer than fifth-year QB Jonathan Banks, who was running coach Willie Frtitz’s option offense before a couple of fumbles against SMU two weeks ago led to his benching.
The 6-foot-3 McMillan scored on a 39-yard run with 3:46 to play in the game, a play that was the difference in the win over the Golden Hurricane. He finished with 75 yards rushing and was 10-of-19 for 92 yards passing with no touchdowns or interceptions.
Tulane has a pair of big backs that have been piling up good chunks of yardage in Tallahassee native Darius Bradwell (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and Corey Dauphine (6-0, 200).
Bradwell, whose nickname is “Brahma Bull,” has rushed for 617 yards and is averaging 6.0 per carry and Dauphine is 521/8.5. They have combined for 12 touchdowns.
“They are real physical and they are downhill runners,” said Strong. “The thing they do, is they are going to try to run you over. We are going to have to tackle well and swarm to the football.”
The Bulls need to do that often if they are to get back into the win column Saturday.
Jonathan Banks started 18 of Tulane’s 19 games at quarterback before being benched last week. The aforementioned fumbles against SMU and his inability to make much happen (only seven total touchdowns in his seven starts) prompted coach Willie Fritz to summon Justin McMillan. In his three seasons at LSU, McMillan appeared in two games and completed his lone pass….The Green Wave came within an official’s review of going to a bowl last season. They enter Saturday’s game needing to win three of their final four games to become bowl eligible. Since USF assistant Shaun King quarterbacked tenth-ranked Tulane over BYU in the 1998 Liberty Bowl, the program has been to only two bowls. They defeated Hawaii in the 2002 Hawaii Bowl and lost to Louisiana-Lafayette in the 2013 New Orleans Bowl….Last week’s win over Tulsa marked a rare road victory. The Green Wave had lost 18 of its previous 22 road games, including 12 of 14 against conference opponents….Tulane is next-to-last in the AAC in allowing 28 sacks. The Bulls’ defense is third in compiling 22.
On tensions that flared up on the sideline last week when linebacker Khalid McGee was seen shoving secondary assistant Blue Adams, Strong said, “There is no reason for that to ever happen and that’s not going to happen in our program. He (McGee) understands what he did and he knows who was at fault.”….Strong noted that tight end Mitchell Wilcox and receiver Tyre McCants, both banged up against Houston, should be good to go Saturday. He hopes to get receiver Randall St. Felix (knee) back on the field against Tulane. Linebacker Nico Sawtelle, who has missed two games due to a shoulder injury, remains day-to-day…..Saturday will mark the second meeting with the Green Wave. The Bulls won last year’s game in New Orleans, 34-28….The Bulls have not lost consecutive games since September 2015 when they were on the short end of three straight to Maryland, Florida State and Memphis….The offense ranks 10th nationally in yards per game at 500.3….Jordan Cronkrite is fifth nationally with 133.3 yards rushing per game. He needs 67 yards to become the fifth USF player to reach 1,000. The other four combined for eight such seasons: Marlon Mack (2014-16) Quinton Flowers (2016-17), Andre Hall (2004-05) and Dyral McMillan (1999)….In the last two games Cronkrite and Johnny Ford have combined for 446 rushing yards and six TDs. In those games, against UConn and Houston, Ford has 270 yards and five TDs on 23 carries….Saturday marks the annual Salute to Service game. Retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Dennis Kelly, father of USF Vice President of Athletics, Michael Kelly, will conduct the coin toss.