Blogs on a plane! Thoughts from the exit row ...
After three gates and three planes, I was able to get out of Charlotte and home to Tampa, where I’m filing these notes from the free wireless before driving home. Cincinnati pulled away to a 52-31 win at Syracuse, so it should be interesting to see how the BCS shakes out Sunday, and how quickly the bowls are able to move on announcing their Big East teams. I’m on limited laptop battery life, so here are 10 quick thoughts:
-- I think Matt Grothe’s 80-yard touchdown run was a huge play – fun to see him run past tight end Cedric Hill, who was able to make a key block about 40 yards downfield – but I thought his best drive was at the end of the first half.
Down 14-7 with 2:56 to play, Grothe was calm, even when his receivers weren’t helping him by cutting inside three times when the situation clearly called for finding the sidelines. Given that the drive started with a 5-yard loss, Grothe took the Bulls from his 20 to the Pitt 14, going 6-for-8 for 74 yards and hitting four different targets. Getting a field goal going into halftime gave the Bulls some much-needed momentum and started a run of 27 straight points for USF.
-- Justin Teachey pulled a muscle in his kicking leg two weeks ago, but Jim Leavitt was quite unhappy with his kickoffs, especially sending back-to-back kickoffs out of bounds. Zero touchbacks, and the coverage wasn’t great either, with Pittsburgh starting on the 33 or better on seven of nine possessions starting after kickoffs. Kickoff is all Teachey’s doing right now, so he needs to be doing it well.
-- Delbert Alvarado, meanwhile, is turning into Mr. Dependable. The sophomore set USF’s season records for PATs and field goals – with 51 and 17, respectively – and has connected on eight of his last nine field goal attempts, the lone miss a block. For the season, he’s 17-for-27, with three of his misses blocked. He also now has the most accurate extra-point season in USF history, moving ahead of Bill Gramatica’s 46-for-47 performance in 1998. Again, the guy has the word “FAMILY” shaved into the back of his head, so it’s hard not to pull for him.
-- As great as Grothe’s 80-yard touchdown run was – offensive coordinator Greg Gregory gave him grief because it took 13 second, saying that’s what happens when you get up to 209 pounds – this was otherwise his least involved running game.
Only three of Grothe’s first 10 runs gained yardage, with five sacks and two other plays where he lost yardage. Less Grothe runs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as his passing continues to be efficient, going 17-for-23 (74 percent) for 159 yards without ever really throwing deep.
-- Thought USF’s fake punt was a very smart call with minimal risk, a huge play that jumpstarted the offense after a lackluster start. Linebacker Sam Miller is a career special-teamer, with exactly four tackles in each of his first three seasons, jumping up to seven this season. Neat to see him get such a memorable play in his next-to-last game after four years of largely thankless work, shifting from high school cornerback to college linebacker. And a perfect directional snap from Eric Setser, who’s consistently as eager as you’ll ever see someone be to down a punt downfield.
-- The Bulls likely have five weeks off before their next game, and no position will benefit more from that time off than the defensive line. Aaron Harris has basically missed three games with a foot injury, and Leavitt said his replacement, Allen Cray, played on one leg because of turf toe, while Richard Clebert injured his ankle again. George Selvie was limited by back problems, so you have four regulars out or playing with injuries.
-- Pretty amazing to think that Mike Ford and Tyrone McKenzie weren’t at USF a year ago and what an impact they’ve made. Ford has 12 touchdowns and the most yards of any running back, and McKenzie’s been absolutely huge. He’ll almost assuredly break Kawika Mitchell’s school record of 117 tackles in the bowl, having 111 now after a ridiculous 18 Saturday. That was one short of J.R. Reed’s single-game record, and that 18 could get tweaked as the defensive coaches review the game tape.
The thing about McKenzie is that he’s come off the field for USF’s nickel package most of this season, so he’s piled up 111 tackles without being an every-down linebacker like Ben Moffitt (who had a strong 10 tackles himself against Pitt). I asked McKenzie if he’d move inside to the middle next season after Moffitt graduates, and he said he didn’t know the plan, but knew he wasn’t coming off the field his senior year. So whatever he finishes with this season, it’s a record that might only stand one year.
-- Speaking of Ford, it was encouraging to see him back on the field in the second half after a costly fumble that put him on the bench for the final 12 minutes of the first half. On the drive after Grothe’s long run, Ford had seven carries for 28 yards, which is nothing spectacular, but it helped USF run 4:35 off the clock on a drive ultimately scuttled when Grothe got hit just before his arm started moving forward, his only turnover of the day.
Ford finished with 63 yards on 16 carries, which is a better rushing day than Pitt’s LeSean McCoy, who had 55 yards on 18 carries. Seeing McCoy catch six passes for 83 yards, it’s clear USF needs to do a better job of integrating running backs into the passing game. Ben Williams has 23 catches, but more than half his yards came in the UCF and Cincy games. Mike Ford caught a pass in the opener, but hasn’t caught one since the Auburn game. Aston Samuels is a guy I can see USF using in a hybrid role next season as a pass-catching back with speed in the open field.
-- My heart goes out to senior cornerback Mike Jenkins, who lost his grandmother early this week and didn’t fly to Pittsburgh with the team. He flew out Saturday morning, a big help for a secondary already missing Louis Gachette, who didn’t travel because of a lingering shoulder injury. It’s sad to write a story about how much family means to a player, then see that player lose a close part of that family just a few days later.
I'll be back Sunday afternoon with posts on new rankings and what they mean. Drop those comments in and I'll get to 'em by Sunday night ...