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Bowl scenarios and cold swirl around USF Bulls' trip to Connecticut

Running back Andre Dixon, plowing through Notre Dame for 114 yards in a UConn victory, has 917 yards for the season.

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Running back Andre Dixon, plowing through Notre Dame for 114 yards in a UConn victory, has 917 yards for the season.

There is the matter of bowl games, where tonight's winner may go and where the loser may wind up. There is the matter of the Big East standings, where winning or losing could be the difference between a respectable tie for third or a disappointing sixth-place finish.

But as USF (7-4, 3-3 Big East) finishes its regular season at Connecticut (6-5, 2-4), the Bulls' first priority is showing they are better than the team that has dropped four of its past six games.

"More than anything else, it's the principle of how are we going to respond to Miami and losing," coach Jim Leavitt said of the 31-10 home loss last week. "How are we going to respond in a game a lot of people will think is a tough challenge for us? I'm anxious to see how our guys respond, a very young team. It's going to be real important for the future, for our team and our program."

Winning tonight is likely USF's only hope for playing in the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., against an SEC opponent, while losing makes it likely the Bulls will be shipped to Toronto for the International Bowl on Jan. 2 against a Mid-American team such as Ohio or Temple. A return to the St. Petersburg Bowl remains a slight possibility, though some scenarios have Connecticut representing the Big East there against UCF.

The Bulls and Huskies have had distinctly different personalities — Connecticut has mastered the agonizingly close loss, with its five losses coming by a combined 15 points. The Huskies have led late in the fourth quarter in four of their losses and led Pittsburgh 21-6 in the third quarter of the other loss.

USF has pitched wildly up and down, with wins over then-ranked opponents in Florida State and West Virginia, but little to show for its past three lopsided losses. Consider the two teams' common losses, against Cincinnati, Rutgers and Pittsburgh — the Huskies lost by a combined nine points; the Bulls by 75.

"We don't want to be inconsistent," Leavitt said. "When we've lost, we've lost big. Fortunately, when you read an L or W, it doesn't say 'win big' or 'lose big.' It just says you win or lose, whether it's by one or 80, or bowl games would be different."

Both have defensive weaknesses — USF just gave up a season-high 240 rushing yards to Miami, and it has injuries limiting its defensive tackles and potentially middle linebacker Kion Wilson. All this while facing a Huskies backfield of Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon that has totaled 1,996 yards and 25 touchdowns.

"I would have to say going into the game, this is obviously the best running team we've faced this year," USF defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said.

Connecticut's defense ranks last in the Big East in conference play in scoring (30.5), total defense (475.8 yards) and passing defense (298.7), and has the fewest sacks (10) in the league. The weather, with the temperature expected to be in the low to mid 30s with a 90 percent chance of rain or even snow, might be more of a problem.

"We go into every game and feel like if we execute and do the right things in situations, we can throw the football," offensive coordinator Mike Canales said. "This game, you don't know how the weather will be or how cold it will be. … Those things can play a factor."

The biggest challenge for USF might be matching Connecticut's emotion tonight. The Huskies lost starting cornerback Jasper Howard, who was stabbed and killed in October just hours after a win against Louisville. Connecticut lost its next three but rebounded to beat Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and Syracuse to become bowl eligible. Sixteen seniors play their final home game tonight, and there's a chance it could be the last at Rentschler Field for coach Randy Edsall, who has been mentioned as a candidate at Notre Dame.

"This game means a great deal. We don't want to finish the season 3-4 in the Big East," said USF linebacker Sabbath Joseph, a friend of Howard's from their high school days in Miami. "To finish strong, we'd have a lot of momentum going into the season next year."

Bowl scenarios and cold swirl around USF Bulls' trip to Connecticut 12/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 10:38pm]

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