USF Looks To Remain Unbeaten Against Displaced ECU

First conference game ahead for Bulls while ECU comes in from the aftermath of Hurricane Florence

TAMPA — While Bulls fans will be pulling for their team to get off to a winning start in conference play and remain unbeaten, they may also want to give ECU a warm welcome when they arrive at Raymond James Stadium for Saturday night’s game.

The Pirates were displaced by Hurricane Florence and have been in Orlando since last Wednesday, a day after cancelling their game at Virginia Tech. According to an athletics department release Orlando was chosen based on the track of the storm, lodging availability and proximity to Tampa.

The team has been practicing at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

“We’re dealing with a lot of issues with some of our players and their families,” said ECU coach Scottie Montgomery during Monday’s American Athletic teleconference. “We are trying to help and mentor our kids through all these difficult situations. But we’re focused on a great opponent this weekend and we are looking forward to the challenge.”

Montgomery went on to say families of those associated with the program, while they may have been displaced from their homes, are safe.

“I can only imagine, with how we were sitting here a year ago with what we were experiencing and how we were bracing ourselves for (Hurricane Irma), and to think about what has just happened in North Carolina,” said USF coach Charlie Strong. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the families and the lives that have been lost.”

The Bulls head into Saturday night’s game (8 p.m., ESPNews/820 AM) looking to go 4-0. While big fourth quarters have punctuated victories over Georgia Tech and Illinois, there is much that needs to be cleaned up heading into their AAC opener.

“Number one is penalties,” said Strong. “You don’t ever want to be a penalized team and that all comes from discipline. I think we had 14 penalties (for 124 yards) on Saturday, which is not who we are, not who we want to be and so we have to get that corrected.”

While the offense came up huge in the fourth quarter in consecutive games against Power Five opponents, Strong feels the unit needs to be a little more consistent.

“We just need to get into a better flow on offense,” he said while noting that too many points have been left on the field. “We have to make sure we can sustain drives.”

As for the defense, the Fighting Illini, as well as Georgia Tech, found themselves with a number of desirable second-and-short situations that were set up by first-down runs.

“The thing we have to do that we are not doing right now is win on first down,” said Strong. “It can’t be a second-and-four or a second-and-three.”

This not to say Strong is not satisfied with the team’s effort through three weeks. Rather, a number of things need to be righted, including game preparation, if the Bulls are to maintain their winning ways through conference play.

“We are in a position where we have to get better and the focus has to be there,” said Strong, who noted he was not pleased with last Tuesday’s practice and how it served put the team on its heels the rest of the week. “That’s on us as coaches. We have to do a better job of getting our guys to go play, at each position. We’re making progress, but we are still taking small steps.”

About ECU
The Pirates have split a pair of home games. They lost, 28-23, to North Carolina A&T in a game that was played Sunday on Labor Day weekend after lightning resulted in the postponement of the scheduled Saturday kickoff. ECU got in the win column Sept. 8 by defeating North Carolina, 41-19…..ECU has lost seven of its last eight road conference games, a stretch that started with a 38-22 defeat at the hands of the Bulls in 2016…..The Pirates have a streak of 256 games since they last suffered a shutout. It is the ninth-longest active streak in the country…..Redshirt freshman quarterback Reid Herring attempted 65 passes against NC A&T. That is the most by an FBS quarterback this season….Redshirt freshman receiver Blake Proehl (team leading 12 receptions) is the son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl, who caught 669 passes in a 17-year career with six teams.

Bulls Bits
A win would be the 150th in program history and give the Bulls a 5-1 mark in AAC openers…. USF leads the all-time series against ECU, 7-1….The Bulls are 18-3 in their last 21 games at Raymond James Stadium….Quarterback Blake Barnett was named co-AAC offensive player of the week (along with Memphis RB Darrell Henderson) following his 411-yard passing effort in the comeback at Illinois….Mitchell Wilcox leads the nation in receiving yards (182) among tight ends and is second in receptions (14). Last season he was 17-185….The Bulls had three touchdown drives of at least 70 yards in each of the first three games….Coach Charlie Strong said he will have a better idea on running back Duran Bell’s (ankle) status by the end of the week and that punter Trent Schneider (hamstring) should be good to go by Saturday….Senior linebacker Khalid McGee, who moved from safety late last season, leads the AAC in tackles per game with 11.3….The Bulls will wear a helmet decal in support of Extra Yard For Teachers Week. Extra Yard for Teachers is the primary platform of the College Football Playoff Foundation. The CFP Foundation uses college football as a means of elevating the teaching profession.

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Tom Layberger has been a sports writer, reporter and editor since 1990. Among the companies he has worked for are Comcast, NBC and The Topps Company. In addition to being a contributing writer for sportstalkflorida.com, Tom also writes for forbes.com and globalsportmatters.com. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a USF grad, Tom is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. He resides in Tampa.