TAMPA — When USF pulled off its 17-7 upset at Florida State in 2009, the Bulls were sparked by a pass rush that included three future NFL draft picks on the defensive line, leading to 12 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles.
FSU hasn't been held to fewer than 10 points once in three years since. And as the No. 4 Seminoles come to Tampa for a long-awaited rematch today, any chance at another Bulls upset has to start with improved play on the defensive line.
"I don't think we're playing aggressive enough up front," coach Skip Holtz said this week after his defense produced zero tackles for loss and zero turnovers in a 31-27 loss at Ball State. "I don't think we played with a physical nature up front."
USF's starting line — ends Ryne Giddins and Tevin Mims and tackles Cory Grissom and Luke Sager — have combined for 3½ tackles for loss in four games. Giddins, a former Parade All-American from Armwood High expected by many to have a breakout season, had 1½ sacks in the first three defensive plays of the season against Division I-AA Chattanooga; he hasn't had any tackles for loss since.
"We accept the challenge," Giddins said when told of FSU's gaudy offensive numbers, an average of 56 points and 574 yards in a 4-0 start. "We're not attacking. The front seven is starting to read stuff, which we normally don't do. We're going back to attacking, not just fitting in gaps, but hitting people in the mouth."
Expect FSU to attack back. The loss to the Bulls still stings.
"Oh yeah, we remember it vividly," FSU quarterback EJ Manuel said. "We haven't forgotten it at all."
The lack of pressure by the Bulls means quarterbacks have not been forced into bad throws, partly why USF is one of three schools in I-A without an interception. When the Bulls saw footage from Saturday's loss to Ball State, the defensive effort looked nothing like that 2009 defense, which had a future first-round pick in Jason Pierre-Paul and an All-American in George Selvie; each had sacks in the FSU win.
"I'll tell you what I don't see. We don't see USF front seven," junior end Julius Forte said of last week's pass rush. "From years on end, we've been known for being physical, fast, (for) pressuring offenses. We haven't been doing that to the best of our ability."
USF's struggle to get sacks is all the more surprising because it was among the nation's leaders last season, ranking fourth in sacks per game (3.2) and second in tackles for loss (8.2). Holtz said he believes opponents responded by creating a game plan to limit USF's advantage at the line of scrimmage, keeping backs and tight ends in for maximum protection, something the Bulls haven't countered.
"When you're one of the top five teams in the country with sacks and tackles for loss and people have all offseason to prepare for you, you're going to get a lot of turn-back protection, you're going to get a lot of quick passes," Holtz said.
Florida State has protected Manuel well, and he has used his considerable weapons effectively on the ground and through the air.
"We're trying to do certain things (this year) and (USF is) just in our way from getting there," said FSU fullback Lonnie Pryor, who had three rushes for 5 yards in 2009, when the Seminoles had 19 yards rushing. "I don't look at it as a revenge game. I just look at it as another game."
Ten of USF's 17 points three years ago came directly off FSU fumbles, including one recovered at the Seminoles 13-yard line. The absence of defensive takeaways this season has made USF's offense work hard for points — in the win at Nevada, the shortest of its five scoring drives was 73 yards; at Ball State, all five were at least 50 yards and the last two went 81 and 99 yards.
So even against a much tougher opponent such as the Seminoles, USF's defensive players have talked about the need to take control, that even in the face of this prolific offense the Bulls need to assert their will, starting at the line of scrimmage.
"What we do will dictate the game, not what their backs do," said Forte, a Boca Ciega graduate. "We have to work hard. The more pressure we put on the offense, the more force we get up front creating a new line of scrimmage, that will dictate what the running backs do."
Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.