Losses in losses: USF defense still seeking more
TAMPA -- Challenged to find answers for how opposing offenses have consistently made plays late to rally for wins during USF's four-game losing streak, Bulls players and coaches have often found themselves at a loss.
"It's tough. I can't put words on it," senior safety Jerrell Young said of the team's late defensive struggles. "To hold them to three, 10 points the whole game, then the last drive they score, it's tough. When they need to do it, they make plays. They do what they need to do to win."
What's confounding, of course, is that more than any team in college football this season, USF's opponents find themselves dropped for a loss. USF leads the nation in tackles for loss -- 72 negative plays created in eight games -- but that consistent ability to get into opposing backfields hasn't translated to success on the scoreboard yet.
"I feel like we're not satisfied within our game play. We're doing some good things, but we're not satisfied. We need to keep progressing," said linebacker Sam Barrington, who has 5.5 tackles for loss among his 50 tackles this season. "The old motto is 'If they don't score, they don't win.' It might be a game where we only kick a field goal, but if their offense doesn't score, they don't win. That's our mind set."
The Bulls (4-4, 0-4 in Big East) play at Syracuse tonight, hoping to get back on track after losing leads in the final 90 seconds of their last two losses. USF led Cincinnati by 10 points in the fourth quarter, giving up 20 points in the final period, and the Bulls had a 17-3 lead on Rutgers with less than eight minutes remaining before giving up a late touchdown and losing in overtime.
If USF is to end its losing streak at Syracuse, the key on defense is finding ways to sustain strong play early -- from first down to third down, from the first quarter until the end of the game.
"So many guys up front are really playing well," coach Skip Holtz said. "Kevin Patrick and Vernon Hargreaves have done a great job developing that defensive front, and then you have three very active linebackers. The way DeDe Lattimore is playing right now, he's playing as well as a linebacker can play. Sam Barrington is all over the field. It's that front seven, they're playing with some excitement, energy, enthusiasm and that's carrying over to them being as productive as they're being as a defensive front seven."
USF's leader in tackles for loss, sophomore defensive end Ryne Giddins, has had his best numbers in the first half, as he did with eight tackles before halftime in the Rutgers loss. He did the same thing with 11 tackles in the first half at Connecticut, but in both games wasn't able to keep up the produciton in the second half.
"It's (similar) in practice. If we go 24 periods, the first 10 I'm on fire, the next 10 I'm starting to slow down," Giddins said. "I've got to pick the other 10 periods up so that leads over to the games. First half I'm going to do good, second half I'm going to do good. ... I hate coming out, but at the same time, I have to let Claude Davis or another defensive (lineman) get in and make plays, because they're just as good."
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said his quandary on the sidelines early in games is whether to take out starters who are playing at a high level, hoping to save more energy for big plays late in the game.
"It's a matter of rolling them and keeping them fresh," Snyder said. "The hard part is when you're on the sideline with these guys, you look at them and they're frothing at the mouth. They don't want to come out. It's hard to pull them out, because you don't want to lose their swagger."
Opponents have consistently been able to dig themselves out of holes created by USF's penchant for tackles in the backfield. Consider Rutgers' final drive on Saturday -- twice, linebacker DeDe Lattimore dropped Scarlet Knights quarterback Chaz Dodd for sacks on the drive, only to see Rutgers convert from the longer distance. The play before the tying touchdown, a chop-block penalty had backed Rutgers up 15 yards, but the Knights didn't blink and scored on a 34-yard touchdown pass to tie the game, setting up an overtime win.
"Right now, every phase of the team needs to look at themselves with missed opportunities and what we can do to get better," Holtz said. "How can we make up this one play on defense ... on offense and special teams. I think we're a good football team right now. There are probably a lot of people that would argue that with our wins and losses and when you look at where we are in the conference. ... We're doing as lot of good things. We just have to get some things cleaned up."