TAMPA – When USF takes the field at Tulsa on Friday night it will do so as one of only 11 undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
In order to remain undefeated and climb the polls, the No. 23 Bulls (5-0/1-0 AAC) are going to have to clean up a few things and they better do so before the conference schedule gets heavy.
While the offense hit on a number of big plays in a 58-42 win at UMass last week, the unit still found itself in many third-and-long situations. Coach Charlie Strong has repeatedly talked about winning first down to avoid such situations. Against the Minutemen the Bulls needed at least eight yards on five of their seven third-down opportunities in the opening half.
The defense also allowed 486 yards, including 401 through the air, and had anything but a strong finish. The team also committed 11 penalties for 100 yards.
The Bulls could get away with such sloppiness in Amherst, but maybe not Friday night in Tulsa (7 p.m. ESPN/820 AM) and certainly not against the better teams in the AAC.
“When you look at our schedule the next seven games, all are conference games,” said Strong in his Monday morning press conference. “We are going to have to play much better because there are real good teams in this conference and everybody is going to play us well, so we have to be at our best.”
Jordan Cronkrite was at his best against the Minutemen. He set school and conference marks with 302 yards rushing and he ran for three touchdowns, each coming in the third quarter and covering 77, 30 and 76 yards. His effort represented the second-highest rushing total in the FBS this season, behind Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin, who ran for 312 yards against Oregon State on Sept. 29.
“When he hits that burst and takes off it is hard for guys to catch him,” said Strong, who noted he wanted to keep Cronkrite in the game so that he could reach the 300-yard mark, which he did early in the fourth quarter. “He has outstanding speed, can run through tacklers and does a real good job of just protecting the football. He’s an all-around back. To rush for 300 yards is amazing. The offensive line did a great job of blocking, even with the tight ends. To see a running back rush for that many yards is also a credit to the offensive line.”
The junior nearly doubled his season’s total, which stands at 606 yards with 567 coming in the last three games. Cronkrite, who missed the opener against Elon, is second in the AAC and third nationally with an average of 152 yards per game. The Golden Hurricane (1-4/0-2) are 110th nationally against the run, allowing 207 yards per contest.
While Tulsa is struggling to defend the run, coach Philip Montgomery’s team has had no such issues when it comes to running with the ball. They are 37th nationally in rushing, also 207 yards per game and five spots behind the Bulls, who are averaging 213 yards.
As such, Strong sees Tulsa’s offense as being much like that of USF’s.
“They are going to run their offense similar to our offense,” he said. “They are a team that does a real good job of running the football and it is going to be a physical game. We are going to have to win the line of scrimmage and if we don’t win the line of scrimmage, then we have no chance.”
Speaking of the line of scrimmage, Tulsa’s offensive line boasts plenty of experience. A trio of seniors in center Chandler Miller (43), right tackle Willie Wright (40) and left guard Tyler Bowling (30) have combined for 113 career starts.
Who they will be blocking for could be questionable right up until game time as Shamari Brooks, who ran for 375 in starting the first four games, sat out last week’s game at Houston due to injury. Corey Taylor II, who got the start and ran for 152 yards against the Cougars, was injured late in the game. Montgomery said they are day-to-day.
What we do know is that Montgomery’s team will be at home for the first time in since Sept. 15. Since it played at Houston last Thursday night the Golden Hurricane will have had seven days off between games while the Bulls will have had five days between games with travel on both ends.
“They are extremely explosive on both sides of the ball,” said Montgomery, of the Bulls, during the weekly AAC teleconference. “They have guys that can run, guys that are big and strong and are making plays and can cause you problems on both fronts. We know we have our hands full. We are glad to finally be back home and we are looking forward to a great game on Friday.”
Seth Boomer will start at quarterback. The redshirt freshman started his collegiate debut at Houston last Thursday night. He completed 13-of-31 passes for 227 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Boomer started in place of Luke Skipper, who played against the Bulls last season in Tampa and ran for two touchdowns. Turnovers (six INTs) and injuries prompted Montgomery to make the switch….If Brooks and Taylor are not healthy enough to play, the bulk of the running would go to 6-foot-2, 237-pound junior Javon Thomas, who had only two career rushes before recording 46 yards on 15 carries last week….Junior linebacker Cooper Edmiston is tied for the AAC lead with three interceptions and is tied for fifth in tackles per game with 8.4. The defense, though, is last in the conference with four sacks…..The Golden Hurricane’s only win this season came in the opener against Charlie Strong’s alma mater, Central Arkansas.
USF won the previous two meetings against the Golden Hurricane, 27-20 in Tampa last season and 38-30 at Tulsa in 2014…..The Bulls have won nine of their last 11 road games…..On injured running backs Duran Bell and Elijah Mack, Strong would only say that they are “coming along” and did not indicate when they might return…..Senior end Josh Black recorded two sacks at UMass and leads the Bulls with four…..Linebacker Khalid McGee is averaging 9.0 tackles per game, good for third in the AAC…..Blake Barnett’s 287 total yards per game and 263 passing yards rank third in the conference…..With two interceptions and eight pass breakups Mike Hampton leads the conference and is fifth nationally in passes defensed with five per contest…..Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert had the same position at Tulsa in 2015….The homecoming game against UConn will kick off next Saturday at 7 p.m. and will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.