ST. PETERSBURG — After last year's Sun Bowl, USF doesn't need a reminder about the importance of containing an explosive running back.
Oregon's Jonathan Stewart rushed for 253 yards in the Ducks' 56-21 win, and the Bulls' defensive game plan in Saturday's St. Petersburg Bowl will start with containing Memphis running back Curtis Steele, the Conference USA newcomer of the year.
"This is the best defense we've faced all year. It's going to be a great challenge," said Steele, a 6-foot, 185-pound junior who has rushed for 1,175 yards and seven touchdowns. "I'm looking forward to going out and having a great game."
If Conference USA has been known for one thing in recent years, it's producing NFL-quality running backs. Tulane's Matt Forte (Chicago Bears), East Carolina's Chris Johnson (Tennessee Titans) and Central Florida's Kevin Smith (Detroit Lions) have been impact rookies in the NFL this season, and the last time USF faced Memphis, DeAngelo Williams (Carolina Panthers) rushed for a Tigers-record 263 yards and three touchdowns in beating the Bulls 31-15 in 2004.
He has the vision
Steele came to Memphis last year from Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he had 7.4 yards per carry in a limited role. He redshirted last season, in part to get rid of a lingering problem with fumbles, but has become the Tigers' best offensive weapon.
"He's got great vision, which you don't teach, and I expected him to do this," coach Tommy West said. "Curtis has improved as the season has gone along. The biggest thing is he's learned how to be patient. … There's more to it than just running fast."
USF's rush defense is ranked ninth nationally, but Steele fared well against Mississippi, the nation's No. 6 rush defense, running for 83 yards on 15 carries in a 41-27 loss in the opener. Of his six 100-yard games this season, all but one have come against defenses ranked 68th or lower.
"(USF) is awful active up front, and (with) their backers," West said. "Their safeties have made a big difference in the run game. They're down there and they're playing it. This will be a great challenge for us. We're going to try to run the ball, so we'll see how we do."
Tigers stepping up
Memphis has the motivation of trying to beat a BCS conference opponent for the first time in four years. Steele had the chance to go to major-conference schools, but the Franklin, Tenn., native chose to stay in-state with the Tigers, in part because they promised to let him run the ball. Most schools — including Mississippi and Alabama — wanted him as a defensive back, and his heart was set on playing running back.
With injuries sidelining as many as three quarterbacks this season, the Tigers have leaned more heavily on the running game.
As Memphis won three of its past four to become bowl eligible, Steele totaled 475 yards and five touchdowns.
"Curtis is a really exceptional back," senior tackle Brandon Pearce said. "He helps us out a lot. We do a decent job blocking, but sometimes, even when we didn't get it done, Curtis just makes something happen."