Holtz: Injuries forced zone defense on 3rd downs
MUNCIE, Ind. -- USF coach Skip Holtz was frustrated with his defense as a whole, forcing Ball State into only two punts and giving up a 75-yard touchdown drive in the final four minutes, but he was most disappointed by the lack of plays made by the defensive line and linebackers, where USF had experienced, veteran players.
"It's discouraging we can't get off the field, but there's a lot of youth on the field in the defensive secondary," Holtz said, pointing to injuries to cornerback Kayvon Webster and safety JaQuez Jenkins. "Where I'm probably discouraged is that we're not able get off the field and do a better job against the run with our front seven right now."
Asked what USF did differently on third-and-long situations after struggling in that area in a loss to Rutgers, Holtz said his staff had wanted to play more man defense on third down, but was limited by the personnel in the secondary.
"We had talked about playing more man coverage, pressing, but all the sudden when you're looking at a freshman into your boundary corner, it kind of takes that away a little bit," Holtz said. "You don't want to put that young man out on an island all my himself, so we went away from that a little bit more, tried to play the zone coverage. What they did a great job of was working our linebackers underneath. They made some really good plays and we weren't able to get off the field on third downs."
Defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said he had hoped to have more pressure from his defensive line, which produced zero sacks and zero tackles for loss, with one quarterback hurry in 71 offensive plays by Ball State.
"We tried more pressure, tried to affect the quarterback more, and that wasn't the case," Cosh said. "They're hitting the under routes, things like that. They made some short throws and broke some tackles is what happened to us."
RED ZONE: Ball State's defense had struggled in the red zone entering Saturday's game, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on all 12 drives inside the Cardinals' 20-yard line. USF had two drives that reached the red zone but stalled there, requiring the Bulls to settle for Maikon Bonani field goals.
"Obviously, you want touchdowns and not field goals when you have the opportunity," Fitch said. "We probably could have tried to power run in there a little bit more one time when we kicked a field goal the first drive of the second half. As the game evolved, we punched it in to go ahead and did some good things that way."
USF had a second-and-3 at the Ball State 7-yard line on that third-quarter drive, but Demetris Murray was stopped for no gain and B.J. Daniels opted to keep the ball on an option read, getting dropped for a 3-yard loss to set up a 27-yard field goal.
USF's offense piled up more than 500 yards and had two late touchdown drives to take the lead, but Fitch said the loss stung as much on the offensive end, knowing there were missed opportunities.
"I'm sick to my stomach because we didn't make enough plays," Fitch said. "They made more plays than we did. That's the only way you can look at it as an offensive coach. You can't fault some of the effort of those guys. There were some guys out there playing hard now. I thought Lindsey (Lamar) played outstanding and gave great effort. Meat did the same thing. They made one more play than we did."
MISCOMMUNICATION: Daniels and receiver Terrence Mitchell both called USF's final play a miscommunication, with Daniels thinking Mitchell would curl to the sideline around the 10-yard line and Mitchell going toward the end zone.
"He was throwing the flat and Rex went over the top. It was more of a read at the top of the route," Fitch said. "He made some good plays. Unfortunately on the last play, he and T-Rex couldn't get on the same page."
Said Holtz: "We had our chance, but we couldn't execute on a corner route there at the end of the game. Just trying to throw it down to about the 10-yard line so we'd have one play from the 10-yard line to try to get the ball in the end zone. We weren't able to get it done."
Daniels had close to 400 yards in total offense and threw three touchdown passes, so Holtz and Fitch had praise for the senior quarterback's play in a losing effort.
"I thought he took care of the ball well in the flow of the game, made some plays with his legs, had some scramble plays where he looked up and found receivers that were critical plays," Fitch said. "Without grading him, I thought he played a pretty efficient game."
It will take that and more for USF to stay in the game Saturday at home with Florida State, which put up big numbers in a 49-37 home win against No. 10 Clemson.
"You don't have time to lick your wounds," Fitch said. "It's a great preparation for life. You know what? We got knocked down. You've got to get up and go, because Florida State's not going to take it easy on us. You've got to do your job, take care of your business, as a coach, as a player, as an offense, defense, whatever it may be. We just have to do our job."
THIS AND THAT: After losing fumbles on punt returns in back-to-back games, Mitchell lost his job as USF's punt returner, with tight end Evan Landi lining up deep on both of Ball State's punts. Deep in his own territory, Landi didn't field either punt, and Ball State was able to down the punts at the 11 and 1-yard lines. ... Freshman corner Chris Bivins saw his first action, getting a single tackle in limited playing time. The only other true freshman to log a stat Saturday for USF was receiver D'Vario Montgomery, who had a 25-yard catch.