USF Headed Into “Hornet’s Nest” At Houston

TAMPA – USF remains undefeated after seven games and yet many of the same questions and concerns that surrounded the team in mid-September follow them into Saturday afternoon’s game at Houston.

That’s what happens when fourth-quarter comebacks and closer-than-expected games have been the norm against six FBS opponents that have an aggregate mark of 12-31.

Life isn’t so bad, though, given the concerns are directed at a team that is No. 21 AP/No. 20 coaches poll and 7-0 for the second straight year, the two best starts in the program’s 22 seasons.

Alas, many questions are about to be answered either way, one would think, commencing Saturday. The game at Houston (3:30 ABC/820 AM) is the first of a five-game season-ending stretch that includes trips to Cincinnati and Temple as well as a Thanksgiving weekend clash with I-4 rival and No. 10 UCF at Raymond James Stadium. Those three teams are a combined 18-4. Not that anybody can afford to overlook visiting Tulane (2-5) next week.

Given USF’s last two opponents, Tulsa and UConn, are a combined 0-12 against FBS opponents with the latter arriving in Tampa last week being outscored by about 40 points on average in such games, there was the expectation the Bulls would roll in both contests.

Instead, a fourth-quarter uprising capped by a Coby Weiss field goal with two seconds remaining was needed to defeat the Golden Hurricane, 25-24. In last week’s homecoming contest against the Huskies, the Bulls didn’t get on the board until less than a minute remained in the opening half. They also allowed 322 rushing yards before holding on, 38-30.

“After the (UConn) game I told our players, winning is hard and just don’t think that every time you come out you are just going to blow somebody out,” said coach Charlie Strong during his Monday press conference. “I said we’re not at that point yet. We’re doing enough just to win the football game and that’s all that counts at the end of the day.”

The hope in the Selmon Athletics Center is that the Bulls (7-0/3-0 AAC) will do enough to emerge victorious against a Cougars (6-1/3-0) team that has scored at least 41 points in each of its seven games is averaging 48.7 points. Only Alabama (54.1) has put more points on the board.

“We know what we are up against,” said Strong. “We are going into somebody else’s territory. I told (the players) it’s going to be a hornet’s nest and we have to be ready to take on anything that comes at us.”

That includes quarterback D’Eriq King. USF fans certainly recall his coming-out party last season at Raymond James Stadium. King, who was a receiver, took over the offense at the start of the Cougars’ third series and has since been entrenched as coach Major Applewhite’s quarterback.

With the Bulls leading 24-21 courtesy Emilio Nadelman’s 30-yard field goal with 1:46 remaining in the game, King went to work. His 30-yard completion on 4th-and-24 to receiver Courtney Lark, who came down with the ball in traffic, kept the game-winning drive alive. Five plays later King was celebrating his 20-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds remaining to give Houston a stunning 28-24 win.

Strong likens King’s ability to that of former USF quarterback Quinton Flowers. The junior leads the AAC in pass efficiency, leads the conference and is fifth nationally with 23 touchdown passes and his 323 yards of total offense per game rank second in the conference to UCF’s McKenzie Milton, who is averaging 334. King has also rushed for nine touchdowns.

“He can make the throws and he can beat you with his feet,” said Strong, whose team entered last year’s game 7-0 and No. 17 in the AP. “I told our defense it is like going against Quinton. He can outrun you and he’s quick enough to get out of the pocket. He has made some very impressive throws. It’s going to be tough.”

Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, the potential No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft – he declared in March — was rendered questionable for Saturday’s game with a bruised right knee. The Bulls would still have their hands full even if Oliver, who is second in the AAC with 13.5 tackles for loss, is not at 100 percent.

“Our hands are going to be full trying to block him,” said Strong. “I don’t know if you can neutralize him because he is such a good football player, but you have to know where he’s aligned at all the time.”

Houston’s defense has its issues, though. The unit is allowing 337 yards per game through the air, which is last in the country, and yielding a total of 489 yards, which is next-to-last in the AAC and 117th nationally.

About Houston
The Cougars are the only team in the country to rank in the top 20 in passing yards (No. 9, 321.3) and rushing yards (No. 17, 234.0)….Senior linebacker Austin Robinson was named Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week after recording 21 tackles, 4.5 of which were for loss and included two sacks in last week’s 49-36 win over Navy…..While the Cougars allow huge chunks of yards, they have caused 13 turnovers, including eight interceptions….With the win over Navy, the Cougars are bowl eligible for the sixth straight season, which is the longest such stretch in team history….Receiver Keith Corbin has caught at least one touchdown pass in six straight games and is second in the AAC with seven TD receptions.

Bulls Bits
USF Athletics is helping support offensive lineman Christion Gainer and his family. Hurricane Michael destroyed the family home in Panama City and a Gofundme page has been established to assist in the recovery….Receiver Randall St. Felix (24-484-2) was banged up against UConn, but will be good to go Saturday….The Bulls trail the all-time series with Houston, 3-2, and have split two meetings in Houston. The teams first met in 2001….Jordan Cronkrite is third nationally in rushing with an average of 143.3 yards per game and trailing Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (158.4) and Memphis’ Darrell Henderson (149.5)…..The Bulls are 11th nationally in total offense (505.0) and 15th in rushing (237.6)….USF has won 35 of its last 41 games and 10 of its last 12 road games.

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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.