For Bulls, change may start with defensive line
TAMPA -- When USF pulled off its 17-7 upset at Florida State in 2009, the Bulls were sparked by a pass rush that included three future draft picks on the defensive line, leading the defense to 12 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles.
FSU hasn't been held to less than 10 points once in three years since, and as the No. 4 Seminoles come to Tampa for a long-awaited rematch, if the Bulls want any chance at another upset, their efforts have to start with improved play on the defensive line.
"I don't think we're playing aggressive enough up front," coach Skip Holtz said this week after his defense produced zero tackles for loss and zero turnovers in a 31-27 loss at Ball State. "I don't think we played with a physical nature up front."
USF's starting defensive line -- ends Ryne Giddins and Tevin Mims and tackles Cory Grissom and Luke Sager -- have combined for a total of 3.5 tackles for loss in four games this season. Giddins, a former Parade All-American from Armwood expected by many to have a breakout season, had 1.5 sacks in the first three defensive plays of the season against I-AA Chattanooga; he hasn't had any tackles for loss since.
"We accept the challenge," Giddins said this week, told of the gaudy offensive numbers FSU has put up in its 4-0 start, averaging 56 points and 574 yards per game. "We're not attacking. The front seven is starting to read stuff, which we normally don't do. We're going back to attacking, not just fitting in gaps, but hitting people in the mouth."
The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has kept them from being forced into bad throws, which is part of why USF is one of three schools in all of I-A football without an interception. When the Bulls looked at game footage from Saturday's loss to Ball State, the defensive effort they saw looked nothing like that 2009 defense, which had a future first-round pick in Jason Pierre-Paul and an All-American in George Selvie; each had sacks in the FSU win.
"I'll tell you what I don't see. We don't see USF front seven," junior Julius Forte said of last week's pass rush. "From years on end, we've been known for being physical, fast, (for) pressuring offenses. We haven't been doing that to the best of our ability, but like I said, it's not to the best of our ability. We can and we will. We're going to practice and practice and practice and keep emphasizing it, to work at it until we get to where we want to be and beyond."
USF's struggle to get sacks is all the more surprising because the Bulls were among the nation's leaders last season, ranking fourth in sacks per game (3.2) and second in tackles for loss (8.2). Holtz said he believes those statistics made opponents create a game plan to limit USF's advantage at the line of scrimmage, keeping backs and tight ends in for maximum protection, something the Bulls haven't been able to counter so far.
"When you're one of the top five teams in the country with sacks and tackles for loss and people have all offseason to prepare for you, you're going to get a lot of turn-back protection, you're going to get a lot of quick passes," Holtz said. "When you look at Saturday, they really didn't throw the ball down the field. Everything was underneath -- 1, 2, 3, get rid of it. They only took about two shots over the top where they had to hold the ball in the pocket."
For USF's opponents, the absence of negative plays has helped sustain long drives. In the Ball State loss, the Cardinals were more than 10 yards away from a first down only four times, all as a result of their own penalties; Ball State's only two punts came directly after 15-yard flags against the offense. Beyond forcing those penalties, USF's defense did little to actually get off the field themselves.
Ten of USF's 17 points in 2009 came directly off FSU fumbles, including one recovered at the Seminoles' 13-yard line. The absence of defensive takeaways this season has made USF's offense work hard for its points -- in the Bulls' win at Nevada, the shortest of its five scoring drives was 73 yards; in last week's loss at Ball State, all five were at least 50 yards and the last two went 81 and 99 yards.
So even against a much tougher opponent like FSU, USF's defensive players have talked about the need to take control of the game, that even in the face of a prolific offense like the Seminoles', the Bulls need to assert their will, starting at the line of scrimmage.
"What we do will dictate the game, not what their backs do," Forte said. "We have to work hard. The more pressure we put on the offense, the more force we get up front creating a new line of scrimmage, that will dictate what the running backs do."