TAMPA — Ball security.
That is one thing, and it is a very big thing, that has spoiled otherwise productive performances by quarterback Jordan McCloud and the USF offense the past two weeks.
Three fumbles last Saturday at Temple and two against visiting East Carolina two weeks ago ended up biting the Bulls. McCloud lost three of the five fumbles and had a hand — literally — on a fourth. A botched read option between him and running back Kelley Joiner (charged with the fumble) was returned for a fourth-quarter touchdown by Temple defensive lineman Arnold Ebiketie last week.
“Outside of the fumbles I think Jordan has played well,” said coach Jeff Scott. “I told him that in his last two games he has shown a lot of improvement and really just doing a good job with the flow of the game. If he can control the ball security issue, I think he will continue to get better and as he does I believe our offense will as well.”
In the losses to ECU and Temple, McCloud completed 41-of-61 passes for 480 yards with three touchdowns (all against the Owls) and no interceptions. It is that type of efficiency, coupled with ball security, that is going to be necessary for the Bulls (1-4/0-3 AAC) to come out with a win against Tulsa on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bulls have lost eight of their last nine games against FBS opponents since winning at East Carolina last October 26.
Johnny Ford, who made his first start last week, leads the Bulls in rushing (265 yards), all-purpose yards (685) and touchdowns (4). He is also third in the American and 12th nationally with an average of 26.7 yards per kick return.
Ford exited late in the Temple game, in which he totaled 206 yards, with an ankle injury. He appears ready to go against the Golden Hurricane.
“I wasn’t feeling okay at the time, but I wanted to get back in (the game),” he said Tuesday. “I feel confident about my ankle and it is getting better with the trainers helping me. I came out (practicing Tuesday) feeling like myself.”
The Golden Hurricane (1-1/0-1) have played only two games and have yet to play at home. Despite the departure of the American’s leading tackler from a year ago, linebacker Cooper Edmiston, the defense has shined in both games.
Tulsa opened September 19 with a 16-7 loss at then-No. 11 Oklahoma State. The defense limited the nation’s leading rusher a year ago, Chuba Hubbard, to 93 yards on 27 carries.
On October 3 at UCF, which also checked in at No. 11, Tulsa fell behind 23-5 late in the second quarter and roared back for a 34-26 win. The defense sacked Knights quarterback Dillon Gabriel six times and forced three turnovers.
At the heart of the unit is 6-foot-4, 260-pound junior linebacker Zaven Collins, who has 7.5 tackles for loss. He recorded six last season.
“They have really been a dominant group in the two games they have played so far,” said Scott, of Tulsa’s defense. “Outside of Notre Dame, this will be the best we have played up to this point.”
On the other side of the ball, Tulsa was dealt a blow when running back Shamari Brooks (2,700 yards, 23 career TDs) was lost for the season due to a knee injury suffered in practice prior to the Oklahoma State game. Texas A&M transfer Deneric Prince has led the way (123 yards, 5.9 ypc).
Quarterback Zach Smith, though, makes the Golden Hurricane’s offense click. The fifth-year senior, who transferred from Baylor following the 2017 season and had to sit out a year, has a cannon arm. He has thrown for 3,718 yards and 23 touchdowns in 14 games with Tulsa.
Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery spent seven seasons (2008-14) as either the co- or sole-OC at Baylor and recruited Smith. USF defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer spent a decade at Big 12 rival Oklahoma State and is certainly familiar with the offense Montgomery ran in Waco. Spencer also schemed against Smith in a 2017 game that the Cowboys ultimately ran away with.
“Zach looks like he is in the mold of the (Nick) Florences and the (Robert) Griffins,” said Spencer of the recent run of impressive QBs at Baylor. “I could write a book on the Baylor offense, which is what (Tulsa runs). Unfortunately, it would not be a bestseller coming from me going against it. They know how to stretch the field and how to find windows. In order for it to be effective you have to have a Zach Smith. Now, a mature Zach Smith is dangerous and it has been building up to this for him. The talent level around him is up to what he was kind of used to (at Baylor). That’s when it gets dangerous.”
Speaking of that talent level, Smith has a group of experienced receivers at his disposal. Four of the top five pass catchers from a year ago returned.
“They play physical and they have some big bodies,” said corner Mekhi LaPointe, who after missing two games returned to the lineup last week and had his second interception of the season. “We have to come ready to play and come with a physical mindset.”
Friday night’s game kicks off at 7:30 and will be on ESPN. It will also be heard on 95.3 FM and 620 AM.