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Willie Taggart still undecided on USF's starting QB

Coach Willie Taggart said Thursday he still hasn't settled on a starting quarterback for Saturday's home game against Houston, but some subtle hints indicate junior Steven Bench will make his first start of 2014.

Taggart has been openly critical of incumbent Mike White for getting down on himself and allowing teammates to see his dejection during his four-turnover effort in last week's loss at Cincinnati. On Thursday, he reiterated the importance of composure during his weekly media teleconference.

Additionally, Bench, who threw a pair of fourth-quarter TD passes in relief of White at Cincinnati, has been seen taking snaps with starting C Austin Reiter during the early stages of practice open to reporters.

"If we're gonna be the team and win the games that we feel like we should win, everyone's got to compete and no one can be complacent or get down when things don't go well," said Taggart, who didn't indicate when he'd decide on a starter.

"We've got to compete no matter what the situation is, and that's what we're looking for in our guys." …

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USF women picked 2nd in AAC

USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez's team has been picked to finish second in the American Athletic Conference by league coaches.


USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez's team has been picked to finish second in the American Athletic Conference by league coaches.

USF's women's basketball team, which returns four of its top six scorers and its top two rebounders from last season's WNIT Final Four qualifier, has been picked to finish second in the American Athletic Conference in a preseason poll of league coaches.

The poll was released at the outset of Thursday's AAC women's basketball media day in New York City. Two-time defending national champ Connecticut earned 10 of the 11 first-place votes. Huskies coach Geno Auriemma voted the Bulls No. 1.

Bulls junior two-guard Courtney Williams, a first-team all-conference pick during her breakout season last winter (16.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg), was named to the preseason first team. Junior PF Alisia Jenkins, who averaged nearly a double-double (9.6 ppg, team-best 10.3 rpg) last season, was a second-team pick.

UConn put four players on the preseason all-conference team not including freshman G Kia Nurse, chosen the preseason Freshman of the Year.

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USF athletics receives sparkling report card

Riled at the inconsistency of USF football? Irked by the men's basketball team's bleak 2014-15 prognosis? Incensed by the conference affiliation?

Well, today's academic-related news gives you a chance to momentarily cash in the disillusionment for some delight.

Collectively, Bulls student-athletes have notched some unprecedented success in the classroom.

The school reported Wednesday it posted an athletics department-record 83-percent Graduation Success Rate (GSR) over a six-year stretch starting with freshmen who enrolled in 2007.

The GSR represented a 6-percent increase over last year's rate. Only five months ago, all 18 Bulls teams earned Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores of 950 or better, making USF among only 36 football-playing Division I schools to achieve the feat.

The football team's GSR (program-high 69 percent) was as 12-percent increase from 2013.

“This is a team effort spearheaded by a dedicated academic services staff, coaches and student-athletes committed to reaching their goals and dreams beyond playing field,” athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement.

The Bulls' GSR, which has risen each of the last five years, exceeds the national average for football-playing Division I programs (75 percent). Additionally, its GSR for African-American and Hispanic student-athletes (75 and 86 percent, respectively) are well above the national averages for those demographics (68 and 79, respectively). …

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Bulls home in on Houston's Ward

Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. may have only two career starts under center at the college level, but he has created quite a buzz on Fowler Avenue.

As the Bulls prepare to host the Cougars on Saturday, the dual-threat sophomore tops the list of priorities on defense, mainly because of his ability to use his feet in certain situations. For the season, Ward has brandished staggering precision (57-for-81, 580 yards) and mobility (46 carries, 192 yards).

"This quarterback is very unique. He brings a different type of game to the field, so we're gonna work to do our best to contain him," junior S Jamie Byrd said Wednesday.

"That's what we've really been working on, just tacking in space, staying in our zone, because he's a very different quarterback we're not used to seeing."

Defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan compared Ward -- a 4,200-yard passer as a high school senior in Tyler, Texas -- to a "punt returner as a quarterback."

"He's got big-play ability, so you've got to control him and you've got to be very, very intelligent and smart and patient in your pass rush with him," Bresnahan said. "But he puts his pants on just like everybody else, so we've got to go out. We love a challenge, man."

QB UPDATE: For the second consecutive day, junior QB Steven Bench took a majority of snaps with starting C Austin Reiter during the 30 minutes of viewing time for reporters.

Sophomore Mike White and freshman Quinton Flowers worked with the second- and third-stringers, respectively.

CLIETT FEELING BETTER: Senior OLB Reshard Cliett said his shoulder injury against East Carolina on Oct. 11 gave him a serious scare.

Cliett, who underwent shoulder surgery last December after playing most of the season injured, said he popped it out of place during the Bulls' 38-17 loss and instantly feared the worst. He was held out of USF's game against Tulsa, but started against Cincinnati.

"At first, with it popping out, I was kind of scared, kind of like, 'I don't want to go through surgery again'," Cliett said. "But (the trainers) told me it was going to be pretty good. Just had to rehab and attack it. That's what I'm really trying to do."

AUDIBLE: "I just think with any coach, it's pretty tough right out of the gate to give a fair assessment on a lot of things that just went on in the game. I know the media people want to get an answer and have that question, sometimes it just takes some time to let it marinate and watch film and get a feel of what goes on. And sometimes you have to alter what you thought in the moment. That's pretty typical." -- offensive coordinator Paul Wulff, when asked why Coach Willie Taggart opted to re-open the quarterback competition after saying White was still the Bulls' starter in the immediate wake of the Cincinnati game

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USF's Collins, Perry earn preseason recognition

USF point guard Anthony Collins was a second-team pick on the preseason All-American Athletic Conference team selected by league coaches.


USF point guard Anthony Collins was a second-team pick on the preseason All-American Athletic Conference team selected by league coaches.

A lingering knee injury that kept Anthony Collins in street clothes for most of the 2013-14 season apparently failed to bump the Bulls junior from the collective grid of league coaches.

The sleek point guard, who received a medical redshirt last season, is a second-team pick on the preseason All-American Athletic Conference team selected by league coaches. Sophomore PF Chris Perry also made the second team.

The teams were announced Wednesday morning at the outset of the AAC's annual men's basketball media day in Manhattan. The Bulls, whose roster features only three players with Division I experience, were picked to finish eighth in the preseason coaches poll.

Collins, a vital cog in the Bulls' march to the third round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, enters the season sixth on USF's career assists list (402).

"He's looking real good. He's looking really, really good," Perry said recently. "That's the biggest piece to us being successful this year."

Perry, who lost more than 25 pounds in the offseason, was named to the league's All-Rookie team last season, when he averaged 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds.


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Tale of the (game) tape: Taggart preaches accountability

Before Monday's film review of Friday's 34-17 loss to Cincinnati, Coach Willie Taggart made an unconventional decision.

Instead of having the players watch the game in groups by position, Taggart made the entire team view it together. When a mistake was pointed out, Taggart said the guilty player was forced to stand up and explain what he did wrong and how he would correct it.

Taggart said the exercise was about creating more accountability.

"I think our guys know that we're not going to deal with complacency and everybody's got to do their jobs," Taggart said. "Everybody's got to look within themselves and ask yourself if you're doing enough, ... This film doesn't lie. If you're not making the play and you're not doing it? That's on you."

MEDICAL MATTERS: Taggart said TE Sean Price, DB Johnny Ward and LB Rahmon Swain are considered day to day with ankle injuries. None participated at practice during the 30-minute session open to reporters.

DAVIS BARRED FROM FIELD: While WR Andre Davis will be allowed to warm up before Saturday's game against Houston, he cannot be on the sideline during his first-half suspension, according to NCAA rules. Taggart said the Jefferson High alumnus will stay in the locker room.

Davis was ejected in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati for throwing a punch on the Bearcats' sideline.

ODDS AND ENDS: Steven Bench and Mike White swapped snaps with first-team C Austin Reiter. Freshman Quinton Flowers, whom Taggart said also is being considered in the competition to start Saturday, worked with the third team. Taggart said he hopes to reach a decision on a starter "before Saturday." ... In honor of its Veterans & Military Appreciation Day against Houston, USF will wear white helmets with a red, white and blue Bulls logo on each side and American flag stripes down the center. The helmet, worn last year against Memphis, also features a sticker on the back honoring the Pat Tillman Foundation.

AUDIBLE: "This is my fifth season and I can see what can happen to a team when panic sets in. Us as seniors, we're stepping in and forcing that one game at a time, forcing that mindset that we have to go out there and go out and play like this is our bowl game or this is our game to go to a bowl." -- senior DT Todd Chandler on the importance of staying focused on Houston and not the next three games, which will determine the Bulls' postseason fate.

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Know the foe: Houston

Houston has won its last two since sophomore Greg Ward Jr. replaced classmate John O'Korn at quarterback.

Scott Halleran | Getty Images

Houston has won its last two since sophomore Greg Ward Jr. replaced classmate John O'Korn at quarterback.

A look at Houston, which faces the Bulls on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium

Nickname: Cougars

Record: 4-3, 2-1 American Athletic Conference (Wins -- Grambling, 47-0; UNLV, 47-14; Memphis, 28-24; Temple, 31-10; Losses -- Texas-San Antonio, 27-7; BYU, 33-25; UCF, 17-12)

Coach: Tony Levine (third season, 18-15)

The breakdown: The Cougars, abysmal in their season opener against UTSA, have been transformed since sophomore Greg Ward Jr. replaced 2013 AAC Rookie of the Year John O'Korn at quarterback in the second half of the Oct. 2 game at UCF. A dual threat who also lined up at receiver and returned punts, Ward has brandished uncanny precision (46-for-61, 456 yards, three TDs, one INT) in his two starts -- both league victories. The pass-catching cornerstone in Levine's spread attack remains Deontay Greenberry (36 catches, 465 yards), who torched USF for 106 yards on only four catches last season. Defensively, the Cougars remain a turnover-creating machine under coordinator David Gibbs, ranking third nationally with 23 forced turnovers. If that doesn't unsettle Bulls fans whose team is pondering a quarterback change, this might: Houston leads the AAC in pass defense (177.9 ypg) and is sixth nationally in pass-efficiency defense (98.74). 

Odds and ends: Clearly, Ward is a quarterback who happens to be an athlete, not vice versa. He led Texas' entire 4A classification in passing (4,202 yards) as a Tyler High senior in 2012. ... Former USF special teams coordinator Vernon Hargreaves, a member of the Holtz regime, remains Houston's linebackers coach. ... The Cougars' recent victory against Memphis was the 400th in program history. No. 100 was a 48-9 rout of the University of Tampa on Oct. 29, 1966. ... Since 2006, only Oregon has amassed more offensive yards (56,062) than Houston (55,987). ...

Taggart's take (on Ward): "He's a heck of a runner. This is gonna be the most athletic quarterback we've seen all year long. Sometimes it's like having a punt returner back at quarterback. He'll take off and just go and you're like, 'You gotta be kidding me.' He's a stud. He can throw the football too."

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Taggart to re-open QB competition

Mike White committed four turnovers during Friday's loss at Cincinnati.

AP photo

Mike White committed four turnovers during Friday's loss at Cincinnati.

Apparently, a weekend of film review and contemplation has prompted Coach Willie Taggart to stage his second quarterback derby of 2014.

Taggart, who reiterated that "Mike White's our starting quarterback" immediately following the sophomore's four-turnover effort in Friday's loss at Cincinnati, said Monday he's re-opening the QB competition. USF (3-5, 2-2 AAC) hosts Houston on Saturday.

Whether freshman QB Quinton Flowers will be part of the competition is unclear. If someone other than White gets the nod for Saturday, it will mark the fourth time Taggart has changed starting quarterbacks in his 21-game USF tenure.

"We need guys that are gonna go out and compete and help this team, so they'll compete throughout the week, and we'll decide who's gonna be our guy at the end," Taggart said Monday on the weekly American Athletic Conference coaches teleconference. …

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Defensive questions persist after Cincy loss

Standing in the bowels of Paul Brown Stadium late Friday night, Willie Taggart called his team's latest defensive collapse "a collective mistake by everyone, players and coaches."

For the fifth time in eight games, Taggart had watched an opponent gash his team for at least 300 yards in only a half. On Friday, it was backup QB Munchie Legaux and TB Rod Moore -- two seniors relegated to backup roles at the season's outset -- alternately slicing and dicing the Bulls as Cincinnati totaled 590 yards (328 after halftime) in its 34-17 romp.

Legaux, whose career was presumed dead when he suffered a grotesque knee injury two Septembers ago, finished 14-for-15 for 121 yards in relief of injured starter Gunner Kiel.

Moore, recently thrust into duty following injuries to a pair of other backs, ran for a career-best 212 yards on 19 carries, posting the school's best individual rushing effort in nearly four years.

"They got too much," Taggart said. "Never in a million years I thought they would rush for that many yards on us. We didn't do a good job of stopping the run and we didn't do a good job of stopping the pass. We just didn't play well defensively."

By the time Taggart uttered that concession, passionate deliberation about the root of USF's problems -- scheme or execution -- already had been renewed.

Is the pass rush insufficient in coordinator Chuck Bresnahan's new 3-4 look? How does a slot receiver (Shaq Washington) get isolated for a 9-yard catch on fourth-and-2 deep in Bulls territory? How can the Bulls continue getting gashed by backs who never will be mistaken for Heisman candidates?

As recently as Thursday, Taggart said the problem was rooted mainly in execution.

"At times, you've seen where the defense has stopped those spread offenses, so I think it's more execution than anything," he said.

"I think coaches can always do things better. ... I think it's executing and doing what we do better than what we've been doing. ... I go back to the East Carolina game. I mean, we held them to probably their lowest amount of offense (481 yards) in that game. These spread teams, you're going to give up some yards. They're pretty good for a just try to minimize how much you give up and try not to let them score touchdowns."

Eight games in, minimizing spread attacks -- much less mastering them -- has seemed too tall an order.

Another resurgent spread offense, Houston, comes to Raymond James Stadium in a week.

"At some point we had to buckle down and just get tough," linebacker Nigel Harris said Friday. "We failed to do that at times, so we've just got to get in the film room and just watch our assignments, see who did it right or wrong, just practice it and make it better." …

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Bearcats-Bulls: Click here for the coverage

The latest USF postmortem, and all its trimmings, have been consolidated right here for your convenience.

First, the game story from the Bulls' 34-17 defeat at Cincinnati, where the Bulls fumbled six times (losing two), were assessed 95 yards in penalties, and tied a school record by allowing 590 total yards.

Additionally, our notebook leads off with WR Andre Davis' latest school record (and eventual ejection), and some school marks established by TB Marlon Mack and OLB Nigel Harris.

Finally, we taped Coach Willie Taggart's postgame press conference. The video can be seen here.



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Football report: Defensive trio to return

In terms of personnel, the Bulls will be almost fully equipped to defend Cincinnati's 12th-ranked pass offense (322.8 ypg) Friday at Paul Brown Stadium.

CB Johnny Ward (ankle) is the only Bull not expected to play, Coach Willie Taggart said early Thursday afternoon. OLB Reshard Cliett (shoulder), CB Chris Dunkley (shoulder) and S Jamie Byrd (hip) are expected back after missing all or part of last weekend's win at Tulsa.

Freshman Kendall Sawyer, who appeared in five of the Bulls' first seven games, is listed as Ward's backup on USF's official depth chart.

Taggart said "it's hard to say" how long Ward will be sidelined. "We heal differently and hopefully he'll get back quick just like those other guys have," he added.

USF-WKU SERIES SET: USF announced a two-game home-and-home series Thursday with Western Kentucky, Taggart's alma mater. Whether Taggart still will be around nine years from now to coach in it remains anyone's guess. …

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Football report: Desperately seeking 60 minutes

Much like their mercurial offensive counterparts, who spent the first half at Tulsa in a stupor, the Bulls defense will try to deliver its first complete game in more than a month Friday night at Cincinnati.

USF's fronts and zone coverages were gashed for 20 points and 314 total first-half yards at Tulsa, but allowed only 174 yards and a field goal in the last 30 minutes.

The week before, in a 28-17 loss to East Carolina, the Pirates scored 21 unanswered second-half points after trailing 17-7 at intermission. In USF's 27-10 loss at Wisconsin, 315 of the Badgers' 454 yards occurred in the second half after the teams played to a 3-all halftime tie.

Defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said the problem lies not in the Bulls' scheme, but the discipline used in employing it.

"And again, when I say execution, I don't point the fingers at the players for not executing, I'm talking about us from a coaching standpoint, everything," Bresnahan said.

"But again, they were tuned in, they listened to the adjustments, and the big thing was the explosive plays. In the first half I think we gave up five or six explosive plays. In the second half, only one (a 30-yard run). And that's the big difference in the game."

CONTAINING KIEL: Sophomore S Nate Godwin said the Bulls' game plan against prolific Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel (1,853 passing yards, 19 TDs) will be similar to the one employed against East Carolina senior Shane Carden, who threw for a season-low 250 passing yards against USF.

"We've got to hit him," Godwin said. "He's a good quarterback and he makes good decisions, but we've got to hit him. I think that any quarterback, once they get hit, they get frustrated. We hit him, we talk to him, he gets frustrated, he'll make bad decisions."

ODDS AND ENDS: Dinged-up defensive starters Chris Dunkley (shoulder), Reshard Cliett (shoulder) and Jamie Byrd (hip) joined the first team in a walk-through portion of Wednesday's practice open to reporters. ... Friday's game is a homecoming of sorts for Bresnahan, who spent four years on the Bengals staff 2004-07, serving as defensive coordinator for three. Receivers coach Ron Dugans played for the Bengals from '00-03 and was an assistant in '07. "That's a great organization," Bresnahan said. "(Owner) Mike Brown and the family are just tremendous. ... They're all great people. (Coach) Marvin (Lewis) and the staff are still close friends." ... LB Nigel Harris offered a bit more detail on his recent shoulder injury, saying someone landed on it during a fumble recovery against Maryland. He returned for the Tulsa game after sitting out one contest, but stopped short of proclaiming himself 100 percent. "Good enough to play, I can say."

AUDIBLE: "I was a freshman, so coming out there I was just looking for that impact play to get me started, and I think that play kind of woke me up a little bit and just made me feel more confident. It just kind of opened up my career a little bit and after that play, I felt like I was more loose and...made a lot of plays the rest of the season." -- Godwin on his 75-yard TD return of Mike McFarland's blocked Cincinnati field goal in last year's 26-20 upset of the Bearcats.

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Football report: Scowl earned White second chance

Upon telling starter Mike White at halftime Saturday that he was contemplating a quarterback change, Coach Willie Taggart said the sophomore responded with one of his most effectives signal of the day.

A scowl.

It was all Taggart needed to make a decision. White started the second half against Tulsa and the rest is, quite literally, history.

"I was impressed," Taggart said Tuesday. "If he would have put his head down and pouted, I probably wouldn't have put him back in. But he looked at me like, 'To (heck) with you, Coach,' and I liked that.

"I want our quarterback to be that way and it meant something to him. Sure enough, we gave him a chance and he took advantage of it."

Did he ever. White, 7-for-12 for 61 yards and a pick-six in the first 30 minutes, sparkled (10-for-14, 211 yards, three TDs) in the second half to rally the Bulls to a 38-30 victory. White was awarded the game ball for helping lead USF to the program's biggest come-from-behind triumph.

"He was looking for that fire and that passion that I really didn't have in the first half ..." White said. "I think it showed once I got passionate, we all played one heck of a second half." …

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Know the foe: Cincinnati

First-year Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel has 19 TD passes in six games.

JOEL AUERBACH | Getty Images

First-year Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel has 19 TD passes in six games.

A look at Cincinnati, which hosts the Bulls on Friday at Paul Brown Stadium

Nickname: Bearcats

Record: 3-3, 1-1 American Athletic Conference (Wins -- Toledo, 58-33; Miami [Ohio], 31-24; SMU, 41-3; Losses -- Ohio State, 50-28; Memphis, 41-14; Miami, 55-34)

Coach: Tommy Tuberville (second season at UC, 12-7; 19th season overall, 142-84)

The breakdown: Behind first-year starter Gunner Kiel, the nation's most coveted prep quarterback once upon a time, Cincinnati boasts the conference's second-best offense (443 ypg, 34.3 ppg) behind East Carolina. Problem is, the Bearcats haven't been able to tackle a soul. Their rushing defense (242.3 ypg) ranks last in the league and 119th nationally, and has allowed five individual 100-yard rushing efforts in six games. Part of the problem involves injuries; Cincy is woefully thin at linebacker and veteran nickel back Adrian Witty (groin) has been out since the season opener. The backfield also has been besieged physically. As a team, UC has 721 rushing yards, six fewer than Bulls TB Marlon Mack. Kiel, who transferred from Notre Dame after being buried on the depth chart, has thrown for 1,853 yards and 19 TDs in six games. Six of his receivers have at least 13 catches including Jefferson High alumnus Chris Moore (18 catches, 421 yards, five TDs), who teamed with USF's Andre Davis to help lead the Dragons to a 2010 state title. 

Odds and ends: Kiel's backup, junior college transfer Jarred Evans, has been suspended following his arrest for allegedly punching a man at a party in Sunday's wee hours. ... Among the keys to Kiel's success has been a highly seasoned offensive line. LT Eric Lefeld made his 40th career start at SMU, while RG Parker Ehinger made his 30th. ... If there is a reliable tackler on defense, it's LB Jeff Luc, whose 12.5 stops per game ranks fourth in Division I.

Taggart's take: "(Kiel) is really good. He can throw the football and he's starting to run the ball a little more now. But they have some guys to throw the ball to as well that make plays for them down the field. Very explosive offensively, and on defense...I see them very similar from an
athletic standpoint to (East Carolina). They have a lot of guys that can run and make plays."

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Football notebook: AAC honors Davis

Less than 48 hours after his record-setting day in USF's historic comeback win at Tulsa, senior WR Andre Davis was named offensive player of the week by both the American Athletic Conference and

It was the first AAC player-of-the-week honor for Davis (six receptions, 154 yards, three TDs), who eclipsed Carlton Mitchell's school record with his sixth career 100-yard receiving effort. He's now tied with DeAndrew Rubin for USF's all-time record for TD receptions (14).

His 85-yard scoring catch -- in single coverage -- in the fourth quarter tied for the second-longest pass play in school history.

"I told (the coaches) in the first half they were gonna match me up one-on-one," Davis said after Saturday's game. "That's what I love."

Senior DT Elkino Watson (seven tackles, one sack, 3.5 tackles for loss at Tulsa) made the league's five-player honor roll.

INJURY REPORT: Coach Willie Taggart said S Jamie Byrd (hip), CB/KR/PR Chris Dunkley (shoulder) and OLB Reshard Cliett (shoulder) all practiced Sunday afternoon. Dunkley and Cliett sat out Saturday's game; Byrd exited during the contest. "Day by day they're getting better," Taggart said.

ANOTHER AFTERNOON KICK: The conference announced USF's Nov. 1 home game against Houston will kick off at 4 p.m., and will be broadcast live on ESPNews. For those scoring at home, three of the Bulls' first six home contests will kick off at 4 or earlier. No time has been set for the Nov. 28 showdown with UCF.

MACK ON TRACK: After his 130-yard, two-TD effort at Tulsa, freshman TB Marlon Mack finds himself on pace to become only the third 1,000-yard rusher in USF history within a month.

Mack enters Friday night's game at Cincinnati ranked 23rd nationally in rushing (133 carries, 727 yards, 103.9-yard average). He needs only 46 yards against the Bearcats -- 119th nationally against the run (242.3 ypg) -- to eclipse B.J. Daniels' 5-year-old freshman rushing record (772).

ODDS AND ENDS: After film review, LB Nigel Harris was credited with USF's lone forced fumble at Tulsa, giving him four on the year, which ties the school record. ... Since Davis' return from a bruised sternum, USF's offense has averaged 381 yards its last two games. In its first five, it averaged 233. ... The Bulls' 38 points at Tulsa were their most in a road game since 2008, and their most in a conference road game since '07. ... After another sparkling effort at Tulsa (five attempts, 46.4-yard average), junior Mattias Ciabatti has moved up to ninth nationally in punting (45.6).

AUDIBLE: "I think they're just knowing their scheme better. ... They move formations quite a bit, they do a good job with it. Last year it looked like they even confused themselves a little bit by doing all of it. But it takes a while to get that in and they've done a very good job of just sticking with it." -- Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, when asked where it appears USF has improved the most from 2013

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