No. 21 USF hopes to fix slow starts against Connecticut
South Florida, after two lackluster performances in which it stumbled out of the gate before posting wins with fast finishes, opens American Athletic Conference play with a trip to Connecticut on Saturday.
The game will be played at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.
The 21st-ranked Bulls have managed to win their first two games against overmatched foes despite falling behind early against both. Looking forward to improving after trailing San Jose State 16-0 in their opener before winning 42-22, the Bulls had just as many issues against Stony Brook in their second game.
The Seawolves, who were playing their opener, led 10-7 at the half and were down only a touchdown going into the fourth quarter before the Bulls pulled away for the 31-17 win.
The second unimpressive performance cost the Bulls two spots in the polls after they opened the year at No. 19 with hopes of rising high enough to earn a spot in a New Year's Six bowl and perhaps even rate some consideration to becoming the first Group of Five team to earn one of the four coveted playoff spots.
They need a big performance to regain that sort of respect.
"We have to run the football," South Florida coach Charlie Strong said. "So we're going to have to move people off the line of scrimmage. We have to protect the quarterback when it's time to pass, too, to give him enough time to find the receivers.
"We know we have to get better. It's not only the offensive line. There's a lot of positions where we know we have to improve and get better."
In the opener, running backs D'Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice combined to rush for 193 yards, and they seemed to give an indication they were ready to make up for the premature departure of Marlon Mack to the NFL. But the two combined for only 72 yards on 29 rushes against Stony Brook, an FCS foe.
Quarterback Quinton Flowers has been under heavy pressure and has completed only 55.6 percent of his passes for 398 yards. He has rushed for another 137 in the two games. Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, with 10 receptions, has more than any other two receivers combined.
The defense, however, is another story.
The Bulls have allowed only 201 total yards rushing in the two games and have gotten to the quarterback for six sacks and picked off five passes while allowing an average of just more than 207 yards a game through the air.
That's a big difference from a year ago when they allowed opponents to rush for nearly 197 yards a game and pass for more than 285.
This defense is playing with a renewed commitment, is setting the tempo, and playing more aggressively, Strong said.
"I think that because of what happened last season they felt like the offense carried them and they want to carry their load," Strong said. "They're playing pretty good right now."
UConn is coming off a less-than-inspiring performance itself in a 27-20 win over Holy Cross, also an FCS foe, in a game that marked the return of Randy Edsall as coach. After spending 12 years with the Huskies, Edsall was at Maryland from 2011 through 2015. He spent 2016 in the Detroit Lions organization before rejoining the Huskies for 2017.
Asked about the feeling upon his return, Edsall said it was the same as before.
"It wasn't anything different," he said. "I just appreciate we were able to get away with a win."
The Huskies did come out of the game with one key issue facing them.
After junior David Pindall struggled in the opener after earning the job in the preseason, senior Bryant Shirreffs will start at quarterback against the Bulls. Pindall was 19 of 28 passing but for only 154 yards in the opener.
Shirreffs, who started much of the last two seasons but missed the last four games last year to injury, was 9 of 13 for 124 yards and led the Huskies to three touchdowns after taking over late in the third quarter.
"I made a decision," Edsall said, "that I think is best for the team."
Updated September 6, 2017