CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The story line isn't far from the last time USF played a bowl game here: It boasts a strong defense but faces a tougher unit from the ACC led by an end projected as a top-five pick in the NFL draft.
In 2005, N.C. State and Mario Williams — later drafted No. 1 overall — handed the program its first shutout, 14-0, in its bowl debut. Presented with the same challenge today, these Bulls (7-5) hope to fare better against Clemson and All-American Da'Quan Bowers.
"Clemson reminds me of them," said sixth-year Bulls running back Mo Plancher, who attended the '05 game as a redshirt. "They did a great job all year. We just have to do our job as an offense and contain them."
Clemson (6-6) ranks ninth among 120 Division I-A teams in scoring defense at 17.8 points per game. (USF is 19th at 19.5 and has allowed 4 fewer yards per game.) Bowers, a 6-foot-4, 275-pounder, led I-A with 151/2 sacks, was second with 251/2 tackles for loss and won the Nagurski Trophy, which goes to the nation's top defensive player.
"What makes him good?" USF coach Skip Holtz said Thursday. "He's fast enough to run around you. He's athletic enough to put you on your heels to where he can make the inside move and beat you. And he's strong enough when he gets you leaning back he can put his hands in your chest and run you into the quarterback.
"It's not like he has one move. He's big, fast, strong and athletic, and that's why they're talking about him being (a top draft pick). The problem is, it's not just him."
Holtz rattled off a stat about Clemson's defense: It faced six bowl teams among its final seven games and held all but one to fewer than 17 points. He could almost be talking about his team, whose last four losses came against bowl teams despite allowing fewer than 21 points.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is just as complimentary of USF's defense, which lacks the star power of a Bowers but has been a strength while replacing five starters now on NFL rosters.
"This is going to be a defensive battle," Swinney said Thursday. "I don't think this is going to become an offensive scoring fest, though you never know in bowl season. They haven't given up many points and neither have we. It'll be interesting to see which offense can come away with points when they get the opportunities."
Back in 2005, USF was outgained only 300-295 by N.C. State. That points to red zone efficiency. Clemson is 115th, getting points on just 71 percent of trips inside the opponents' 20.
"We just couldn't get into the end zone," Plancher said, remembering his last game in Charlotte. "We've got to finish in the red zone and not get negative yards. We can't get into second and long or third and long."
Bulls center Sampson Genus, playing his final college game, said the Bulls respect Clemson's defense but can't get caught up in who they're lining up against.
"You just have to put your feet in the ground and hit it," Genus said. "You can't worry about who's in front of you or what draft spot they are."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.