Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Colleges

No fracture in Bulls unity

TAMPA — At this juncture, you might presume a rift between the unit standing on its head and the one standing still. During this holiday of gratitude, you almost expect USF's defense to say thanks for nothing to its offense.

At any moment, you anticipate a safety or speed rusher eliciting his inner Warren Sapp (circa November 2000) and launching a tirade against his team's lack of forward progress.

Statistically, you could argue it all would be warranted. When one unit is playing lights-out and another struggles to emit any wattage at all, chemistry becomes a casualty.

Or does it?

Gauge the tension between Division I-A's 30th-ranked defense (355.8 yards per game) and 120th-ranked offense (263.7), and the readout shows very little. On the visible surface, a gaping disparity in ranking hasn't resulted in a disparity in the ranks.

"I think our guys get frustrated after a while; I think anyone would," coach Willie Taggart said. "But our guys have been great. They've been great teammates."

Say this for Taggart and his staff: Friction has been as minimal as touchdown production — nine by the offense, five by the defense/special teams — during this 2-8 season.

It's evident in the rhetoric and interaction among players during practice (at least the portion open to the media). The next fractious tweet delivered by a Bull will be the first.

"The minute we start getting down on (the offense), then it throws our play off," senior cornerback Brandon Salinas said. "The minute we look at what they're not doing, then we start not doing our job. … All I know is, they say, 'Defense up,' we go."

Cohesion was a glaring priority for Taggart upon his hiring in December. His staff immediately selected a 10-player "unity council" to serve as a liaison between team and coaches, and piped in music during practices beginning Day 1.

Winter conditioning drills were designed, as offensive coordinator Walt Wells describes, "to really expose 'em to where they have to learn to lean on each other."

"It's been great," Taggart said. "I told our team I appreciate them so much. Considering what we're going through as a football team, we haven't (fractured). And that's a credit to our coaching staff, our seniors and everyone buying into what we're trying to do."

Yet cohesion seems to have been forged much easier than conformity to a new scheme. Through 10 games, USF has lacked the poise and personnel to successfully execute Taggart's pro-style, power-based offense.

Both Bulls victories came without an offensive TD. In four other games, USF allowed 280 or fewer yards and lost each by double digits. It's reasonable to suggest if the Bulls offense could get out of its own way, as Taggart suggests, USF might still be in bowl contention.

"I thought other than TCU, they were probably the best defense we've played," Southern Methodist coach June Jones said two days after the Bulls held his team to a season-low 280 yards in a 16-6 Mustangs win.

Twenty minutes after that defeat, defensive end Aaron Lynch (two sacks), one of the Bulls' more emotionally charged players, was asked if the defense at least gave a winning effort.

"The whole team did," he replied.

And so a green-and-gold nation waits for Taggart's team to put it all together on the same night. Coming together? They appear to have done that long ago.

"They understand those days are coming," Wells said. "You can come over and gripe and complain and get on 'em, it's not going to help any. They've learned from what coach is preaching to be (unified)."

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