TAMPA — Time and time again in last week's game against Rutgers, USF's defense made big stops on first and second down, setting up a favorable third and long, only to give up frustrating conversions.
Four times Rutgers converted out of third and 10 or longer, and a fifth time, a USF penalty extended a drive. Five days earlier, in a win against Nevada, USF's defense extended drives with third-down penalties three times, once in the final minute.
"It's hard to get teams into a third-and-long situation. That's what you want to do as a defense," linebacker Michael Lanaris said. "It's kind of a moot point when you're busting your tail to get them into that third and long, and they come away with a big conversion. We've got to do a better job with that."
So as the Bulls look to regroup Saturday at Ball State, the defense is focused on improving its third-down play and getting off the field. USF's defense has been on the field 33 more minutes than its opponents' through three games.
"We couldn't get off the field on third down, which was really an Achilles heel for us," coach Skip Holtz said. "(It) made the day a little longer than we wanted it to be on defense. … First and second, it's loss of one, loss of two and it's third and 12. You feel like you're going to win the majority of those. It's draining. 'We let them out.' Then you do it again on first and second down. It has a little bit of a psychological take on you."
Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova beat the Bulls on three third-and-long plays in the same quarter with passes to receiver Tim Wright. USF's defensive backs said they want a better focus on the specifics of a play, knowing exactly what the offense needs for a first down.
"(It's) just noticing where the sticks are," safety JaQuez Jenkins said. "I think a lot of times we're out there, everything is moving so fast that we don't realize what the down-and-distance is. I think we get a little lackadaisical finding where the sticks are … 'Okay, it's third down.' Knowing that's a key situation, we'll be better off if we bring that aspect to our mental part of the game."
Secondary coach Rick Smith said nickel defensive back Ernie Tabuteau won't be in that role this week after missing assignments in the third-and-long package.
"We were our worst enemy," said Smith, who estimated the defense faced an extra 15 plays as a result of the third-and-long conversions.
Ball State's balanced offense has been dangerous on third downs, converting 9 of 18 on Saturday in a 41-39 upset of Indiana. In the final minute, the Cardinals converted a third-and-10 to help set up the winning field goal.
USF's defense doesn't want to leave it up to defensive backs to make third-down stops — defensive tackle Cory Grissom couldn't remember a single time USF hit Rutgers' Nova. Getting pressure on the quarterback, knowing third and long is typically a passing down, could lead to not only defensive stops, but the kind of pressured throws that can lead to turnovers as well.
"It all goes back to affecting the quarterback, getting pressure on the quarterback," end Tevin Mims said. "Third down, our D-ends and D-line, we have to get home to the quarterback. We have to emphasize that this week."