Bulls seek better decisions from QB Daniels
TAMPA -- B.J. Daniels believes his USF offense is close to clicking, close to waking up, close to getting out of the slump that's kept the Bulls out of the end zone in two disappointing losses to open Big East play.
"We're right there on the cusp," the sophomore quarterback said after practice this week. "There's a lot of little penalties that stop drives, little stuff like that. ... It's self-inflicted stuff, all across the board."
Mention last week's 20-6 loss at West Virginia, when he threw three interceptions and converted just one of 11 third-down opportunities, and he'll say there's no more to learn from that game than the mistakes that can be found in any game.
"Win or lose, there's always stuff you can improve on," Daniels said. "It's more magnified when you do lose, but there's definitely a learning experience in every game, and each game, whether you win or lose, you have to move on from it and give yourself a chance for next week."
USF's coaches have said for weeks that the Bulls' offensive struggles cannot be simplified to one isolated problem, but as they identify their needs for major improvement -- limiting turnovers, improving third downs and creating big plays -- much of that progress goes hand-in-hand with better decision-making by Daniels.
The Bulls have not scored an offensive touchdown in the last two games, the first such drought in USF's 14-year history, and if things are to change Friday night at Cincinnati, that too will have much to do with Daniels and what he's able to do leading that offense.
"It's just making decisons," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "I don't care if you're a veer offense, a Wing-T offense, a dropback offense, quarterback is about making a decision. ... It's just a feel thing, getting comfortable and getting confidence in yourself that 'Hey, I'm making the right decision. Go.' Usually, if you hesitate a second, it's a bad one. That's really what we've got. He's got to believe in his first decision."
Daniels was USF's leading rusher as a redshirt freshman last season, and in transitioning to a new offense under coach Skip Holtz, Daniels hasn't been called upon to run as much. Since rushing for a solid 107 yards in a loss at Florida, Daniels has totaled 60 yards on 44 carries in the last four games, including 3 yards on 27 carries in his two Big East losses.
Running less hasn't made him a better passer -- against I-A opponents this season, Daniels has two touchdowns and 10 interceptions, the latter being more than he threw in all of last season. His troubles have been especially bad on third down, when the Bulls have converted just 17 first downs in six games, the lowest total out of 120 I-A teams. He has overlooked open receivers, and four of his interceptions have come in the final 90 seconds of the first half, where they cost the Bulls quite a bit of momentum.
USF coaches showed Daniels this week that many of his mistakes were occuring after he had started scrambling outside the pocket, forcing him to make decisions on the run, outside the confines of the scripted play. Daniels' instinct, Holtz says, is too often to try to make a play whenever possible, even if the risk outweighs the potential big play. Holtz was asked this week if Daniels has the thought in his mind to simply not throw the ball in that situation, to just run like he used to or safely throw the ball out of bounds.
"I would like to think so," Holtz said. "We are trying to get that seed planted."
Quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas has been sympathetic to Daniels' struggles, saying it's not unusual for a young quarterback learning a new offense. He's stressed patience, even if the Bulls have already taken themselves out of a Big East title that seemed wide-open just 12 days ago.
"Good gosh, the only thing I can tell you is it's a process. It's an ongoing process, a daily process, a play-by-play process. It's something that takes time," Vaas said. "Until you've ever sat in that seat and had to make decisions with all hell breaking loose around you, your own heart beating a thousand times a minute, it's a difficult thing to do. Has B.J. made a perfect decision every time? No, he hasn't. He'll be the first to tell you we'd like to have some of those back. The key thing for all of us is we have to be patient. We can't lose patience. As soon as we lose patience, we're in trouble. We're not going to do that."
USF's coaches have been more vocal in their frustration than Daniels has, but all have expressed an optimism that small changes in the right areas can get the Bulls back in rhythm on offense. He understands the accountabilty that comes with being a starting quarterback, getting credit for losses as well as wins.
"There are always things I can do better," Daniels said. "I'm not going to point the finger at anybody, whether it's a penalty here or a penalty there, an incompletion or interception or a fumble or whatever you want to call it. I'm the guy on the hot seat, the guy that's taken this role at my position. I'm not too worried about it. I'm just going to try to move on as an offense. I always talk about our offense because it's not any one individual player. From my end, and I can't speak for anybody else, there are different things I can work on."