Bulls showcasing depth after Miami win
TAMPA -- USF's overtime win at Miami was made all the more impressive by the fact that so many of the Bulls making key plays to beat the Hurricanes down the stretch were backups pressed into duty by injuries to starters.
Depth has been something Skip Holtz has sought to cultivate since preseason camp in Vero Beach, but as the Bulls finish their regular season at home Saturday night against Connecticut, that ability for second-stringers to suddenly play like first-teamers has been invaluable to Holtz's team.
"A lot of guys really stepped up in that game," Holtz said. "That's kind of been the battle cry of this football team all year. We keep talking about how important depth is to be a great football team. Late in the season, everybody's got injuries. ... When somebody goes out, it's your turn. Somebody else has to step up."
Consider the Bulls offense in overtime. Backup center Kevin McCaskill, playing for the first time in seven weeks, snapped to backup quarterback Bobby Eveld, who hadn't played in six. Eveld threw a 9-yard pass to the 1-yard line caught by backup receiver Joel Miller, who had as many catches against Miami as he'd totaled all season. And the winning touchdown was scored by No. 2 running back Demetris Murray, his second of the game after more than a month without finding the end zone.
Moments earlier on defense? USF's seventh three-and-out against Miami was made possible by three unsung players. Defensive end Ryne Giddins, who made his first career start after two players ahead of him were injured, got the tackle on first down; Curtis Weatherspoon, arguably USF's sixth linebacker, dropped a player for no gain on second down, and then senior Sabbath Joseph, who got his first start as a senior nod in his hometown, made his only tackle of the game on third down, catching 'Canes receiver Leonard Hankerson in the open field to force a field goal.
"It was a good moment," said Weatherspoon, who has 19 tackles while coming off the bench. "Anything to help the team, anything to help us get the win. Everybody sees what they need to put in to help the first team, the guys who have been here a while, to give them that push."
USF's secondary was especially depleted in the second half against Miami -- backup safety Tyson Butler had three tackles, doubling his season total, and reserve cornerback George Baker had a career-high five tackles after totaling seven in the first 10 games. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said that his options were so thinned by injuries at Miami that he was barely able to shift to situational alignments like his nickel defense, with a fifth defensive back, or a look with three down linemen instead of four.
"There was one part of the game where (defensive backs coach) Rick Smith's got me by the shirt during a TV timeout and he goes 'You OK if he plays at nickel? Because if you don't, we don't have nickel.'" Snyder said. "There was another point in the game where I'm calling for our three-down package, our Penny package. I'm going 'Penny! Penny! Penny!' And he goes 'You can't go Penny.' What? We couldn't even get to Penny. The point is kids kept stepping up, kept playing no matter who's in there."
Despite being at their limits in terms of personnel, Snyder didn't have to scale back on an ambitious, complicated game plan -- his second unit knew the plan well enough to stay in scheme, and they carried it out as well as he could have hoped.
"The thing I'm most proud of is they kept following the plan. They're executing what we're calling," he said. "Maybe they're not getting as many reps in practice as those other guys, but I felt like I still had my whole plethora of calls. That's a credit to them paying attention in practice and in meetings. I didn't have to scale back any of it."
Ask the backups about their high level of production, and they give credit to the teammates who push them in practice -- Holtz routinely puts his top units against each other, with the No. 1 offense against the No. 2 defense and vice versa in two-minute drills.
"It has a big deal to do with the people surrounding me," said McCaskill, whose twin brother Keith is in a similar position as a top backup at defensive tackle. "My teammates on the offensive line prepare me mentally, and our defense prepares me physically."
McCaskill said he was nervous when starting center Sampson Genus hurt his back late in the game, but said he's typically that way on the sidelines, where he watches the game, trying to read the defense the same way he would if playing.
"I'm always nervous. I'm nervous just sitting on the sideline. I'm nervous, but anxious to get in whenever my number is called," he said.
There are backup success stories all over the field for USF -- even kicker Maikon Bonani, who is 13-for-16 on field goals this season, started the year as the backup, getting the nod only after senior Eric Schwartz connected on one of his first five attempts. Each time one backup embraces a larger role, it gives motivation and confidence to another backup to know he could perform the same way when thrust into action, even in a tough situation like a close game at Miami.
"With everybody stepping up, that just shows the depth we have, as well as how great we're coming along as a team, becoming that one unit," McCaskill said. "When the two-group goes in and you see them making a block or a catch, everything from reads to small fundamentals, whenever you see them doing well, it gets you excited, knowing they're growing up and everybody's progressing to be that No. 1."