TAMPA -- It probably seems counterintuitive to many Bulls fans, given the disappointing nature of USF's 5-7 record in 2011, but along the way, the Bulls actually made the biggest improvement in total offense of any school in I-A college football.
USF's total offense improved by 123.4 yards per game from Holtz's first season in Tampa to his second, jumping from 106th nationally to 31st -- it's a statistic that is both encouraging and confounding for Bulls coaches. Football success isn't ultimately measured in yards, but in points, and more directly wins, and USF stands out among the most improved teams in total offense as the only school unable to translate those gains into a better record.
Of the nine teams that increased their total offense by 100 yards or more, USF was the only not to improve its record -- the other eight got better by an average of 3.5 wins from 2010; USF won three fewer games in 2011. USF's average scoring increased by just 5.2 points per game, less than half the scoreboard improvement for schools like Houston (+11.5 points) and Baylor (+14.2 points).
"We're the only team in the country to lose three games on the final play of the game," Holtz said. "Things that take the air out of your lungs. We had the lead or were tied in the fourth quarter of 10 of the 12 games. You dive in and say, 'Why did we not win more games when offensively, we were that much more explosive?' You're right there. We just weren't able to finish it off."
USF was outscored 64-14 in the fourth quarter and overtime of their first six losses, failing to score after the third quarter in four of those. Holtz said that over the holiday break, his coaches focused on watching the second half of the seven losses, trying to identify what went wrong at the end of games and what can be done to avoid the same in 2012.
"After you lost about four of them, late in the game, you almost felt like when you had the lead late in a game, it became a 'Oh, no, we have the lead late,'" Holtz said. "I think that's partly what happened. You have a young, inexperienced team and you don't have a lot of senior leadership that's going to take over a game at the end."
USF won't have that excuse in 2012 -- after losing just six senior starters from this team, the Bulls may have as many as 13 seniors starting this fall, including key multi-year starters such as QB B.J. Daniels, RB Demetris Murray, DT Cory Grissom and LB Sam Barrington. Daniels alone improved his total offense by 1,261 yards from 2010 to 2011, this despite playing in one less game.
"I think this senior class is extremely motivated. I think they're embarrassed for where we are from a win-loss standpoint, that we weren't able to close the door," Holtz said. "So much of that is experience. ... It is more than just talent that it takes to win."
USF improved in some areas defensively, ranking second nationally in tackles for loss and second nationally in sacks. The defensive secondary, which was limited by injuries, took a major step back, dropping 60 spots from 24th nationally to 84th in passing yards allowed.
"The area where we've got to get better on defense, and probably the disappointing part of the season, was our pass defense was not as productive this year as it was a year ago," Holtz said. "Passing defense, the yards, you dropped 60 spots."
Offensively, the Bulls must get better at protecting the football -- only 18 teams out of 120 lost more fumbles than the Bulls did with 13 in 2011, this after losing only six in 2010, matching the eighth-lowest in I-A football.
"There's growth, there's improvement, but there's still a whole lot of things we need to improve on," Holtz said. "In talking about our growth from Year 1 to Year 2, what excites me is that we return pretty much everybody on offense. If we can make the same strides, we're going to go from 31 (in total offense) to top 20, now we're getting to where we want to be."
Team +Yardage +Points +Wins
1. USF +123.4 +5.2 -3
2. Ohio +123.2 +3.0 +2
3. Houston +118.6 +11.5 +8
4. Toledo +115.5 +14.3 +1
5. Baylor +111.7 +14.2 +3
6. Utah St. +110.0 +11.6 +3
7. Clemson +106.2 +9.6 +4
8. Wyoming +102.9 +6.9 +5
9. N. Mex. St. +101.6 +8.8 +2