TAMPA – Coming off a bye and with the calendar having flipped to October, USF might prefer to dive right back into its AAC slate of games. Alas, the schedule dictates a non-conference matchup with UMass must be played Saturday afternoon.
The Bulls’ first-ever trip to the state of Massachusetts commences an eight-week stretch of games through the end of the regular season. As such the bye gave the Bulls (4-0/1-0 AAC) an opportunity to catch their breath and deal with some injuries before embarking on the aforementioned run of games, five of which will be on the road starting with Saturday’s tilt (3:30; Ch. 38, 820 AM) with the Minutemen.
“The open week gave us the time to get some of our guys healed up,” said coach Charlie Strong during his Monday morning press conference. “We had a lot of bumps and bruises.”
There have been some bumps and bruises on either side of scrimmage when it comes to executing the game plan, which was especially evident the last two games against Illinois and East Carolina.
Strong has mentioned the need to improve on first down. Evident against Illinois was the trouble the defense had in limiting the number of rush yards on first down. The offense had difficulty for most of the Illinois game and all night against ECU getting itself into favorable second-and-short situations. Winning the line of scrimmage would change that.
“The key thing, more than anything on both sides of the ball, is that we have to win on first down,” said Strong. “We’re not winning on first down right now. When you talk about winning on first down your defensive front and offensive line have to win. That’s where we’re not winning right now because we are not playing physical.”
The game against UMass would seem to represent an opportunity for the Bulls’ offense to find a rhythm prior to the resumption of conference play at Tulsa next Friday. The Minutemen (2-4) are 125th among 129 FBS teams in allowing 42.7 points per game and are 114th in total defense yielding 484 yards per game.
The offense really bogged down against ECU when the Bulls had eight three-and-outs.
“We didn’t execute at the level that we had done in the first (two) games,” offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said following Wednesday’s practice. “That’s what it really came down to. Those are things we obviously addressed this week. Going forward you have to be effective on first down, you have to go out and play at a high level and have some rhythm and tempo about you. Those are things that each week we work on and preach about.”
Gilbert noted tight end Mitchell Wilcox, who was injured against ECU, has looked good in practice and is ready for Saturday. With respect to injuries that thinned the depth chart at running back against ECU, Gilbert said “we have some guys coming back.” Trevon Sands, Elijah Mack and Duran Bell Jr. all sat out against the Pirates.
UMass has a pretty potent offense. The Minutemen are averaging 35.3 points per game thanks in part to the play of 5-foot-10 receiver Andy Isabella. The senior, who had 1,020 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, is tenth nationally with an average of 108 receiving yards per game. He has 41 receptions, seven for touchdowns, and has caught Strong’s attention.
“He has really good speed and the thing he does is run unbelievable routes,” he said. “He runs precise routes and they find a way to get him the ball.”
Two quarterbacks have been getting him the ball this season, though USF will likely see starter Andrew Ford. The senior, who suffered a neck injury last year forcing him to sit out a game, was injured early in a loss at FIU on Sept. 15. The nature of his injury was undisclosed and he missed the remainder of that contest and the following week’s game against Charlotte when junior Michael Curtis led the Minutemen to victory.
Ford returned for last week’s 58-42 loss at Ohio. He threw for 355 yards and four touchdowns (one INT) against the Bobcats. On the season he has thrown for 841 yards and six TDs with four interceptions.
The Minutemen will be without head coach Mark Whipple who was suspended without pay “from all football activities” this week stemming from comments he made about officiating in the Ohio game. Defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham will serve as head coach. Pinkham faced USF twice when he was the DC at Rutgers in 2009-10….UMass is in its third season as an independent. The program elevated from the FCS to the FBS in 2012 and immediately joined the MAC to fill a vacancy created when Temple returned to the Big East that year. The marriage lasted four seasons with the MAC and UMass agreeing to part ways following the 2016 season….Only once in their six seasons of FBS affiliation has UMass won more than three games. That was last year when the Minutemen went 4-8.
Saturday will mark the first meeting between the programs. Last season’s game versus the Minutemen was scheduled for Oct. 14 at Raymond James Stadium. That was until Hurricane Irma resulted in much shuffling of AAC schedules that gave priority to playing conference games while cancelling less critical non-conference matchups. The UMass game in Tampa was rescheduled for 2022….USF received 83 votes, good for 27th, in last week’s AP poll. The Bulls are 26th in the coaches poll…..The Bulls are looking to go 5-0 for the sixth time. Their best start was last year when they went 7-0 before losing at home to Houston….Jordan Cronkrite, who is fifth in the AAC in rushing at 101 yards per game, will try to make it three straight 100-yard outings against a UMass run defense that is allowing 257 yards per game to rank 124th nationally.