TAMPA – The three-game gauntlet that stood as the schedule’s stiffest challenge to USF attaining AAC East Division supremacy commences at Cincinnati on Saturday night.
The problem, of course, is that the electricity surrounding the final three games of the regular season has lost of much of its wattage thanks to the Bulls suffering consecutive defeats by a combined 47 points at the hands of Houston and Tulane.
There is an outside shot, one in which many stars must align, that Charlie Strong’s team could still appear in the conference championship game. There will be absolutely no chance of that happening, though, unless the Bulls do a resounding about-face in the Queen City.
Resounding because of how embarrassing a 41-15 home loss to Tulane was last week.
“Saturday’s game was a very disappointing loss,” said Strong, in a gross understatement to open his weekly press conference Monday. “The thing about it is, whenever you take the field you want to make sure we’re prepared to go play and it falls on me as a head coach that that didn’t happen.”
What has happened the last couple of weeks is the USF (7-2/3-2 AAC) defense seemed downright helpless at times. Missed tackles, players overshooting their gaps and open receivers have been a common sight in the Bulls allowing 98 points and more than 1,000 yards the past two games.
“The first thing we need to do is play physical to stop the run,” said Strong. “We are not separating off the blocks and it’s fundamental, just technique, where we’re not winning one-on-one battles. We are not making anyone one-dimensional. Saturday (Tulane) ran the ball and even when they threw the ball there were guys open. So, you have to take away something and we haven’t taken away a thing.”
Cincinnati (8-1/4-1) is not going to give much away. The Bearcats, who are No. 25 in the AP poll and No. 23 in the coaches poll, are sixth nationally in scoring defense (14.0 points) and fifth in total defense (276 yards). A 42-0 win over Navy last week was the fifth game in which they have allowed 17 or fewer points. In their only loss they held Temple to 17 points in regulation before falling in overtime.
So, the Bulls will likely be in for quite a battle Saturday (7 p.m. ESPNU/820 WDAE) even if things go well. Furthermore, the temperature is excepted to drop into the 20s during the evening.
“In know they are one of the best defenses in the nation,” said Tyre McCants, who leads the Bulls with 51 receptions and 543 yards. “It is going to be a tough battle. It is going to be cold up there, so it is going to be a tough environment. We have to go in focused and be ready to play because they are going to give us their best.”
The Bearcats have a veteran defensive front led by senior tackle Cortez Broughton, whose 15 tackles for loss are second in the conference and his 5.5 sacks are good for fourth.
“The front seven is really strong against the run and if we are going to run the football, we are going to have to move people off the line of scrimmage,” said Strong. “They are going to bring pressure and that’s how they smother people. They are going to make us throw the ball. They want to smother you, stop the run and make you one-dimensional and make you beat them over the top.”
After traveling to Cincinnati the Bulls fly into Philly next week to play Temple. The regular-season finale is Black Friday against visiting UCF. The Bearcats, Owls and Knights are the three teams ahead of USF in the East and have a collective 13-2 mark in conference play.
“I told our guys, we just keep playing,” said Strong. “(Last week) we lose and SMU beats Houston. Within this conference you can’t really say teams are head and shoulders above other teams. It’s still November and so much can happen in November. You just never know, until that final whatever game it is, what’s going to happen.”
Strong provided personnel updates on Monday. He said that tight end Mitchell Wilcox (ankle) and defensive tackle Kevin Kegler (undisclosed) “should return” to action at UC. He is hopeful of receiver Randall St. Felix’s (knee) return after missing two games while linebacker Nico Sawtelle, who has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury, and safety Mekhi LaPointe (undisclosed) are day-to-day.
Linebacker Khalid McGee returns after sitting out one game following a sideline incident at Houston involving assistant Blue Adams.
The Bearcats have rebounded in a big way following a pair of 4-8 seasons. They started this season, Luke Fickell’s second, 6-0 before suffering an overtime loss at Temple….Ohio (6-3) and Temple (5-4) are the only opponents the Bearcats faced that currently have a winning record. They play at UCF next week….Redshirt freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder replaced returning starter Hayden Moore (147 yards, one INT vs USF last season) in UC’s third series of their season-opener at UCLA. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder has not looked back. He is fourth in the AAC in pass efficiency and has totaled 18 touchdowns, with 13 coming through the air…..Sophomore Michael Warren II (955 yards) is fourth in the conference averaging 106.1 rushing yards per game and is second in rushing touchdowns and total TDs with 14. He had 47 yards on six carries against the Bulls last season…. UC is fourth in the conference in scoring with an average of 35.0 points per game…..The defense is allowing opponents to convert only 26.3 percent of third downs, good for third nationally…. Opponents have totaled 17 points in the second quarter against the Bearcats.
USF won last year’s game against Cincinnati in Tampa, 33-3, and trails the series 8-7….UC will be the Bulls’ first ranked opponent of the season. Their last such opponent was UCF last Thanksgiving weekend in Orlando….The Bulls are 11-23 all-time versus ranked teams. The last road win was the 2011 season opener at Notre Dame….After being held to 13 yards on six carries against Tulane, Jordan Cronkrite needs 54 yards to reach 1,000. His 118.2 yards per game rank tenth nationally…..Senior DE Josh Black recorded a career-high nine tackles against the Green Wave and leads the team in tackles for loss (8.5) and sacks (5). He is also tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles….West upper deck tickets on the USF side are available for the UCF game on Nov. 23. With a small number of lower bowl seats remaining, USF Athletics opted to open upper deck seating for the War on I-4. Tickets range from $29-$59 and are available on www.USFBullsTix.com as well as calling 1-800-Go-Bulls.