Bulls hope to solve Clemson defense
CHARLOTTE -- The storyline isn't far from the last time USF played a bowl game here: The Bulls boast a strong defense, but face a tougher unit from the ACC, led by a dominating defensive end projected as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
The last time around, it was N.C. State and Mario Williams, who handed the Bulls their first-ever shutout, 14-0, in their bowl debut in 2005. Presented with the same challenge, these Bulls hope to fare better against Clemson and its award-winning All-American, Da'Quan Bowers.
"Clemson reminds me of them," said sixth-year Bulls running back Mo Plancher, who attended the '05 game as he redshirted his first year at USF. "They did a great job all year. We just have to do our job as an offense and contain them."
Clemson (6-6) ranks ninth nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 17.8 points per game, though USF (7-5) is 19th nationally at 19.5 points per game, and the Bulls allowed four fewer yards per game this season. The Tigers have arguably the nation's top defensive player in Bowers, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound junior who leads the nation with 15.5 sacks and ranks second with 25.5 total tackles for loss.
"What makes him good?" USF coach Skip Holtz said Thursday. "He's fast enough to run around you. He's athletic enough to put you on your heels, to where he can make the inside move and beat you. And he's strong enough when he gets you leaning back he can put his hands in your chest and run you into the quarterback. That's what makes him hard to defend. It's not like he has one move. He's big, fast, strong and athletic, and that's why they're talking about him being at that level. The problem is, it's not just him."
Holtz rattled off a stat about Clemson's defense, noting that the Tigers faced six bowl teams in their final seven games and held all but one of those teams to 16 points or less. He could almost be talking about his own team, whose last four losses came against bowl teams that his defense held to 20 points or less.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is just as complimentary of USF's defense, which lacks the star power of a Bowers but has been a surprising strength for the Bulls while trying to replace five starters from last year now on NFL rosters.
"This is going to be a defensive battle," Swinney said Thursday. "I don't think this is going to become an offensive scoring fest, though you never know in bowl season. They haven't given up many points and neither have we. It'll be interesting to see which offense can come away with points when they get the opportunities, because points are going to be at a premium in this game."
Back in 2005, USF was only outgained 300-295 by N.C. State, but couldn't translate those yards into points as well as the Wolfpack. That points to red-zone efficiency, a particular weakness for Clemson, which ranked 115th out of 120 schools in I-A football, getting points in just 71 percent of their trips inside the opposing 20-yard line.
"We just couldn't get into the end zone," Plancher said, remembering his last game in Charlotte. "We've got to finish in the red zone and not get negative yards. We can't get into second and long or third and long."
Bulls center Sampson Genus, playing in his final college game, said the Bulls respect Clemson's defense but can't get caught up in who they're lining up against.
"You just have to put your feet in the ground and hit it," Genus said. "You can't worry about who's in front of you or what draft spot they are."