Football thoughts, recruiting updates ...
OK, finally, just three days after the game, I have a moment to check in with thoughts from USF's 22-12 win against Pittsburgh. Huge win, of course, in that it puts USF back into realistic expectations of a second bowl appearance. Had they lost Saturday, I'm not sure USF would have gotten to a bowl, short of upsetting Louisville or West Virginia.
If you assume that USF beats Syracuse this week and loses at Louisville and West Virginia, then the Birmingham Bowl is the huge favorite, with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati battling for the International Bowl in Toronto. On an interesting aside, SI.com's Stewart Mandel issued his first bowl projections this week, which had USF going to Birmingham and, curiously, Cincinnati going to the Motor City Bowl in Detroit as an at-large, assuming the Big Ten doesn't fill all of its contracted spots.
There are 32 bowls (and thus 64 bowl berths), and there are 49 I-A teams already eligible with six wins. There are another 17 who already have five wins with three weeks left in the season, so it's safe to assume that there will be a good amount of six-win teams left home for the holidays. It's good incentive for USF to win this week -- as if the thought of giving Syracuse its first Big East win in two years weren't enough. If USF finished the year at 6-6 with three straight losses, they'd be leaning heavily on their Big East ties to land any bowl, and I don't know how many fans USF could promise to an at-large bowl like the Motor City if BIrmingham went with Cincinnati instead.
Anyway, back to thoughts on the game:
-- Was struck by how many key plays involved one USF player helping out another. Cornerback Trae Williams earned Big East defensive player of the week honors, and while most will point to his sixth interception in the final minute, that was really just a mild relief, ending a rally when Pittsburgh was down 10 points with a minute to play. Williams' bigger play, to me, was a great backhand deflection inside the 5-yard line on a deep pass, perfectly set for Mike Jenkins to leap on in the end zone for a more crucial turnover. You saw a Matt Grothe pass, batted at the line, Chris Simms style, and running back Ricky Ponton was smart enough to jump on the loose ball. Then, when Ponton fumbled in the fourth quarter, the quarterbacks returned the favor, with Pat Julmiste alertly jumping on the loose ball to avoid a huge mistake.
-- If the first successful fake punt was a gutsy read by Justin Teachey, the second one was an easy gamble by comparison. The whole rugby-style kicking-to-the-side deal created a specific focus for opponents' punt return teams, and Pittsburgh got so caught up they stacked six players -- six! -- outside the right tight end on the second punt. Would have made for a great block opportunity, but also made for the easiest first down of USF's season, with Teachey rumbling 14 yards for a first down. It's a case of USF outcoaching its opposition -- there's been more inventive coaching (and yes, not all good) on the punt unit this year than anywhere else. I think USF will go back to a conventional punting setup after this season, but Teachey has made for entertaining copy, moreso than you usually expect from a punter.
-- I mentioned this in Monday's day-after follow, but for all that was written about USF shutting down Pitt QB Tyler Palko, I thought it was as impressive that running back LaRod Stephens-Howling was a total non-factor in the game. LSH -- as I took to calling him in my game-stats shorthand -- was ranked 29th nationally in rushing yards, piling up 221 yards against Syracuse, and against the Bulls, he had no run longer than 7 yards. You heard a lot of praise for USF's young defensive line for keeping the offensive line off the linebackers, allowing them to get to the ballcarrier unfettered and make more plays.
-- I'm torn this week between writing a preview story on USF's offensive line (which has a big test this week, given that Syracuse has done nothing as well as they get to opposing QBs), or writing about how well the Bulls have used the reverse this year. It's been the single most successful play in USF's offensive arsenal, called at the right times and consistently scoring touchdowns. It's another case where my job would be so much easier with access to assistant coaches. Instead, I've requested a ton of players for today's press luncheon -- just minutes away! -- with the hopes that one of the two stories will materialize.
-- Since we've given all kinds of trick-play love to the Bulls, I still have not found anyone who understands why USF, up 14-3 in the second quarter and driving to the Pitt 21 with five minutes left in the half, tried a gimmicky hook-and-ladder play that resulted in a potentially really bad turnover. I understand that perhaps the best time to run a trick play is when a defense would least expect it, but on a second-and-9 from the 21, what's the best that can happen when Amarri Jackson takes a short pass and laterals back to an oncoming Ricky Ponton? Grothe had completed passes of 19, 22 and 8 yards on that drive alone, so the offense had to have confidence of being able to move the ball in a more natural, gimmick-free, confidence-building way going into the half. It just seemed like the Bulls were drinking from the silly-play well one time too many and it cost them. The defense bailed them out, making this irrelevant, with Stephen Nicholas getting a big sack on second down and then the defense forcing an incompletion and subsequent punt. If there was an overriding theme to talk at halftime, it was that USF could have been up much more convincingly than 14-3, and the Bulls were fortunate their second-half play made that a non-issue.
-- Questions? Thoughts? With three weeks left in the regular season, what are the stories you haven't read and want to see? I'm curious, too, what attendance will be like for both basketball teams, who open their seasons in the next week with optimism but largely unattractive opponents for the next month. Shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or post a comment here, and I'll do my best to address them this week.