TAMPA — USF quarterback B.J. Daniels enters tonight's Big East opener with a surge of momentum, having thrown for three touchdowns in each of his games. That matches his best two-game total of his four seasons.
But the Bulls' opponent tonight, Rutgers, has given Daniels all kinds of trouble. In three games, Daniels has just a single one-point win, has completed fewer than half his passes, totaled three touchdowns and averaged just 176 yards of offense.
"It's not just what they do to B.J. It's what they do to everybody," Bulls coach Skip Holtz said. "There's a reason they're the No. 1 defense in the league."
Rutgers, first in the Big East last season in total defense and scoring defense, has done it with an aggressive, attacking unit that starts with a blur of presnap sleight of hand, moving players around like a shell game with helmets to make it difficult for quarterbacks to find the right audible.
"I always call them crazy. They do a lot of different things; try to confuse the offense, the offensive line, especially the quarterback," Daniels said. "There's a lot of moving parts. You have to make sure you're focused and dialed in on what you're supposed to do … not get caught up in all the moving parts of their defense."
Even in his fourth start against them, Daniels will be challenged to keep his poise against the Scarlet Knights, who have maintained their identity on defense despite losing coach Greg Schiano to the Bucs in January.
"They're very blitz-oriented, very movement-oriented. They try to cause confusion," USF offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "They're doing a lot of the same things over and over and over, but they try to window dress it. It creates a blur, and sometimes, that causes confusion. You have to have ways to settle the quarterback down. Your quarterback has to feel really good about what's going on around him."
To top it off, USF faces Rutgers on a short week, having gotten home from its game at Nevada about 3 a.m. Sunday morning. (Rutgers beat I-AA Howard at home Saturday.)
Fitch called this week "one of the most challenging things I've been through in coaching." He's trying to give Daniels a full understanding of what Rutgers does to throw him off from the correct reads.
Daniels' first start against Rutgers was a 31-0 loss, USF's first regular-season shutout. Rutgers used a "spy," designating one player to focus on him. Daniels completed just seven passes and gained 11 yards on 16 carries. A year later, he threw two touchdowns in a one-point win but gained 15 yards on eight carries.
Last season, even after USF gave up a 14-point lead in the fourth, Daniels broke loose for a 30-yard run on the final drive before a missed field goal as time expired sent the game to overtime, where USF lost. Daniels, who completed a season-low 41 percent of his throws in that game, was intercepted on a deflected pass in overtime.
"Definitely, they have (used a spy) in the past, especially with a lot of the zone-read things we've done," Daniels said. "But … I don't think it's anything that will take us out of what we do."
The deep ball had a starring performance Saturday at Nevada, including two 50-yard touchdowns over the final three minutes as the Bulls erased an 11-point deficit. A big-play threat is crucial to keep Rutgers from stacking the line of scrimmage.
"We have not been able to take advantage of them down the field," Holtz said. "If they want to cheat a safety in to get another guy into the box, we have to give our receivers an opportunity to go one-on-one and go down the field; with speed with guys like (Derrick) Hopkins and Terrence Mitchell and jump-ball ability with guys like Andre Davis and D'Vario Montgomery and Deonte Welch."
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, formerly the team's offensive line coach, knows the threats Daniels presents and said any mistakes can show up on the scoreboard.
"I think what you see from B.J. is an even better version of what he already was, which is a guy that played at a high level," Flood said. "It will be a great challenge. I think you have to be ready to play good, sound defense every play because he's got the ability to expose you on defense every time he has the ball in his hands."
Schiano's pulling for …
Sure, it's a big game tonight as USF hosts Rutgers. But the big question: Who will new Bucs coach, and former Rutgers coach, Greg Schiano be rooting for? "I'm pulling for Rutgers. Those are my guys." Schiano said he hopes to get over to Raymond James Stadium for the game.
Joe Smith, Times staff writer