TAMPA — When the USF Bulls take the field against East Carolina on Saturday night, they will do so two days shy of one month since their only previous appearance at Raymond James Stadium this season.
The four-week gap between home games will result in a dramatic difference as far as atmosphere. No fans were permitted in the venue and not even a partial band was present during a season-opening win over The Citadel on September 12.
Against the Pirates, however, there will be fans for the homecoming game. The university announced Monday that approximately 8,000 lower bowl seats and 3,000 suite seats were made available. The band will be present as well. (See ticket and stadium protocols.)
“I will be excited to look up there and see people,” said coach Jeff Scott. “To have some fans in the stands I think will be a little bit of normalcy for our guys. It is really the first opportunity that our fans will see us in person. Hopefully, we are prepared to play our best game in front of them.”
Being at home again should help the Bulls (1-2/0-1 American) in that regard.
“We are excited to come back home,” said senior offensive lineman Michael Wiggs. “It has been a while. Having our fans, the old faithful, back at Ray Jay is going to be a great feeling and we will be ready to play Saturday.”
The Bulls’ defense was ready to play last week. In a 28-7 loss at then-No. 15 Cincinnati, the unit held the Bearcats to 21 points, 332 total yards, forced four turnovers and allowed only two plays of more than 15 yards. Cincinnati’s other touchdown was on a kick return.
The effort was especially noteworthy given the defense was missing eight players, including a few starters.
Unfortunately, an offense that turned the ball over five times (all interceptions) could not take advantage. Katravis Marsh started at quarterback and threw three interceptions and Jordan McCloud, who was able to move the ball in the second half, was picked twice. Cade Fortin (2-for-6, 14 yards), who has the strongest arm among QBs, made his USF debut in the first half after sitting out the first two games.
Though Scott hinted, albeit without being specific, during his Tuesday press conference that there was some separation at the position during practice that morning, Saturday could be another game where multiple quarterbacks are utilized.
“There is a chance we could play multiple quarterbacks in this game,” he said. “I hope it is because the first guy has done so well that we want to give the second guy a shot and not the other way around as it has been the past couple of weeks.”
Getting the ball downfield has been a chore the first three games. Against what will likely be a heavy dose of blitzing by ECU, whoever is under center is going to need time. Pass protection will be paramount and the receivers, who Scott blamed for two of last week’s interceptions, need to be crisp with their routes.
“Their linebackers are big, strong physical guys and that’s a matchup with our running backs in pass protection,” said Scott, who noted the Pirates blitz 80-85 percent of the time. “That’s a big emphasis this week, getting the ball out of our hands.”
ECU (0-2/0-1) had its problems in losses to visiting UCF (51-28) and at Georgia State (49-29). The Pirates have turned the ball over seven times and committed 22 penalties for 202 yards. Still, the Bulls need to be wary of quarterback Holton Ahlers. Though the junior has struggled so far this season, he averaged 312 yards of total offense in 2019 to lead the American and place ninth nationally.
The 6-foot-3 Ahlers likes to move around, spread the defense and is not afraid to throw back across the field.
“He likes to get out of the pocket and stuff like that,” said junior tackle Rashawn Yates. “We have to be able to keep him in the pocket. It will be tough, but if we play together we will be alright.”
One area the Pirates have a clear advantage is special teams, particularly the kicking game. Jake Verity leads active FBS kickers in career field goals with 60. Conversely, the Bulls tried out seven kickers on Wednesday and senior Coby Weiss (18-of-23 career FGs) was forced to retire due to undisclosed health reasons.
The Bulls will be looking to win their sixth straight against ECU. They lead the all-time series 9-1.
Saturday night’s game, which kicks off at 7, will be available on ESPN+ and 95.3 WDAE/1250 WHNZ.