4-2 sounds like a pretty good mark for the South Florida Bulls halfway through the 2011 season. The problem, though, is that they lost the "wrong" two games, meaning their goal of winning the Big East is basically dead in the water already. Still, the season has not been a complete loss, with a win at Notre Dame to their credit and a much improved offense (at least when it doesn't get in its own way). Let's look at the three phases and the coaching and evaluate their first-half performances.
Remember back when I wrote the quarterback prospectus and I said B.J. Daniels needed to play at a "B" level for USF to have a chance to win the league? He's right at that level so far, although he hasn't had a huge game away from home yet, which is where USF has played their three toughest opponents. Daniels has completed 61.5% of his passes for 1458 yards, with eight touchdowns and three interceptions, only one of which was completely his fault. He's still on pace to become USF's first-ever 3000-yard passer in a season, assuming the Bulls play in a bowl game. Although some flashes of last year's bad decision-making surfaced against Connecticut last week, Daniels has done a much better job taking care of the football in the first half of the season. (Keep in mind, he had two games last season where he threw at least three interceptions.)
Daniels has also directed a solid running attack that is primarily based on option and veer principles. This puts a lot of the decision-making on his shoulders; he has to decide whether to hand the ball off (or pitch it on a veer option), or keep it himself. There haven't been many mistakes made in the running game so far. Between Daniels and top running backs Darrell Scott and Demetris Murray, the prime ballcarriers are on pace to total over 2500 yards rushing. The three have split carries pretty evenly, and Scott has mostly lived up to the promise he showed at Colorado as a five-star recruit. He's averaging over six yards a carry, leads the team with five touchdowns, and is on track to be USF's first 1000-yard rusher since Andre Hall in 2005.
The receivers have been led by sophomore Sterling Griffin, who has twice as many catches as the second-leading pass receiver. Griffin is on pace to set school records for catches and receiving yards, with 32 receptions and 420 yards through the first six games. But like last year, there is no consistent #2 receiver. Victor Marc has bounced between receiver and running back, while Evan Landi does the same between receiver and tight end. A.J. Love hasn't been fully healthy and has just six catches, and the newcomers (Deonte Welch, Andre Davis, and Ruben Gonzalez) have been used sparingly. Overall, 18 different Bulls have caught a pass, and while there have been a few opportunities for Skip Holtz and the coaches to empty the bench, you wonder if there might be a few too many cooks in the kitchen. Then again, it's also an indication that no one has established themselves as a clear second option to Griffin.
There's not much to complain about with the offensive line, as they've helped blast open running lanes for Daniels, Scott, and Murray, while only allowing seven sacks. Then again, they haven't been completely tested the way their November and December opponents will. You know Rutgers, Syracuse, Louisville, and West Virginia will be lining up to try and fluster them with constant and exotic pressure.
Why isn't this grade higher? Because the offensive stats were heavily padded against Ball State, Florida A&M (when they set a single-game Big East record for total offense), and UTEP. In those three games, USF averaged 613 yards per game. Against their three BCS opponents, all on the road, the Bulls averaged just 339.
It's tough to hold the defense completely responsible for some of their weaker efforts because there their talents may not exactly line up to the team's defensive philosophy. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is caught between turning the front seven loose and exposing the young secondary, or having them play more conservatively and allowing long, physical scoring drives. The defensive line and linebackers have done a nice job rushing the passer this season -- they have 22 sacks so far, including a school record-tying seven against Connecticut last week. Defensive end Ryne Giddins had his breakout game against the Huskies (11 tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble), and he, Julius Forte, and Claude Davis are all tied for the team lead with three sacks. True freshman Elkino Watson has played well at defensive tackle, leading the team with 6.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker DeDe Lattimore has been another standout.
But as good as the Bulls have been rushing the passer, they've had some serious issues stopping the run. Unfortunately the whole country got to see Ray Graham rack up 226 yards rushing when Pittsburgh crushed USF 44-17 on September 29. He took advantage of bad tackling and picked on middle linebacker Michael Lanaris all night. (Lanaris had 13 tackles, but several of those were the "running back sticks helmet into linebacker's chest knocks him back three yards then they fall on each other" variety.) Last week, Lyle McCombs, who is certainly no Ray Graham, ran for 130 yards to help UConn control the clock and win 16-10. USF often doesn't get much push against the run, and they rarely run blitz to try and stop the other team's momentum on the ground. At an average of 125.5 yards per game, USF's rush defense is last in the Big East.
The secondary hasn't really been outstanding one way or the other. Part of Snyder's defensive scheme is preventing big plays, so while the opposition is completing 61% of their passes, they're averaging less than 10 yards per reception and they haven't given up many deep passes. On the other hand, the defensive backs have a total of just four interceptions, and they have to clean up a lot when the front seven is struggling to stop the run. Four of the top 10 tacklers on the team play in the secondary. Bonus points to Jerrell Young and Kayvon Webster for making the biggest play of the first half of the season. Against Notre Dame, Young stacked up Cierre Wood just short of the goal line on the Irish's first drive, then ripped the ball out. Webster picked it up and ran it back 96 yards for a touchdown that changed the entire complexion of the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
Maikon Bonani is "only" 9-for-14 kicking field goals this year, but two of those five misses were long attempts into the wind against UConn. (The first one was right at the very edge of what he estimated his range would be into the 20 mph breeze, and it came up short. The second one was one yard shorter and probably shouldn't have even been attempted.) All things considered, he's been as reliable as he's always been, and his numbers should improve as long as there aren't more adverse weather conditions.
Justin Brockhaus-Kann is still not booming the ball like you would hope, averaging just 38.9 yards per kick and often needing favorable bounces to end up with a good punt. The upside is that the punt coverage team has actually gained yardage on the season -- USF opponents have returned just four of JBK's 25 punts, for a grand total of -2 yards. Having a net punting average that's higher than your gross punting average is nearly impossible, but that's the case here.
Something might be wrong with Lindsey Lamar. While teams are certainly focusing on him more in the kick return game after he returned two kicks for touchdowns last year, he's averaging just 18.1 yards per return this season, with a long of only 31. He hasn't come close to breaking one yet, and he looks hesitant and not as quick as he did last year. After Marcus Shaw broke off a 79-yard return last week against UConn, there's a chance we may see him get more chances to run back kicks if Lamar continues to struggle. Meanwhile, the kick coverage team is having issues, allowing 22.8 yards per return, They did start off the Ball State game with a bang when Spencer Boyd forced a fumble and Mark Joyce took it in for a touchdown.
The punt return game wasn't doing very well even before Terrence Mitchell gave himself a concussion making a tackle on a fake punt against UTEP. He's averaging just 5.2 yards per return, and half his 67 punt return yards on the season came on one return against Notre Dame. With Mitchell out, Evan Landi has been pressed into duty to mostly call for a fair catch and secure the ball. In fact, filtering out Andre Davis's 30-yard touchdown return (which was really on a blocked punt), USF has just 80 yards on 18 returns, for an average of 4.4 yards.
Skip Holtz's coaching performance in South Bend is a big reason the grade is even this high. He kept his team focused in a hostile, intimidating environment, and then guided them through two weather delays and a bush-league hurry-up move by Notre Dame after the second delay ended. Not many coaches would have been able to manage those obstacles and still come out the other side with a victory.
However, the offensive and defensive schemes have given us pause. We didn't think much about them last season while the team got adjusted to new schemes, and the talent level was lower than it had been, especially on offense. This year, it's a different story. For whatever reason, offensive coordinator Todd Fitch continues to handle B.J. Daniels too carefully in certain situations. The Bulls rarely throw the ball in the red zone, which makes them predictable and has led them to more field goal attempts than may be necessary. They also don't throw downfield very often -- the passing game is built on screens and other very short passes. Now, by "downfield" we don't mean running four verts all the time. But it's been frustrating to watch USF not challenge teams like Connecticut and their weak secondary more often by throwing past the first-down marker.
The conservative philosophy on defense makes a little bit more sense, as we noted in the defense section. But some run blitzes might help the front seven regain the upper hand when their opponent is starting to lean on them in the running game. They might give up some yards throwing the ball if they guess wrong, but since USF is still in a bend-but-don't-break philosophy against passing teams, they might have given up those yards anyway.
It's going to be very hard for USF to get back into the Big East race because West Virginia looks like by far the best team in the league. It's hard to imagine the Mountaineers losing a Big East game before they arrive in Tampa for the season finale on December 1, which would mean the Bulls have no chance to win the league. At this point, the two most realistic goals for USF should be to try for the program's first 10-win season, and to get into the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, which is basically the second-place bowl game for the conference. It would be beneficial all around -- an extra 2-3 weeks of practice, a quality ACC opponent (maybe Florida State?), and a bowl that they would have no trouble selling tickets to.
The big step forward is probably out of reach this year, so now it's time to salvage a small step forward, because USF has been standing still for awhile now. Time to make a move, any move.