TAMPA — B.J. Daniels believes his USF offense is close to getting out of the slump that's kept it out of the end zone in two losses to open Big East play.
"We're right there on the cusp," the sophomore quarterback said this week. "There's a lot of little penalties that stop drives, little stuff like that. … It's self-inflicted stuff, all across the board."
Mention last week's 20-6 loss at West Virginia, when he threw three interceptions and converted just one of 11 third-down opportunities, and Daniels will say there's no more to learn from that game than the mistakes that can be found in any game.
"Win or lose, there's always stuff you can improve on," Daniels said. "It's more magnified when you do lose, but there's definitely a learning experience in every game, and each game, whether you win or lose, you have to move on from it and give yourself a chance for next week."
Coaches have said for weeks that the offensive struggles cannot be simplified to one problem, but as they identify their needs for improvement — limiting turnovers, improving on third down and creating big plays — much of that progress goes hand-in-hand with better decisionmaking by Daniels.
The Bulls have not scored an offensive touchdown in the past two games, the first such drought in USF's 14-year history, and if things are to change Friday at Cincinnati, that too will have much to do with Daniels.
"It's just making decisions," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "I don't care if you're a veer offense, a wing-T offense, a dropback offense, quarterback is about making a decision. … It's just a feel thing, getting comfortable and getting confidence in yourself that 'Hey, I'm making the right decision. Go.' Usually, if you hesitate a second, it's a bad one. That's really what we've got. He's got to believe in his first decision."
Daniels was USF's leading rusher as a redshirt freshman last season, and in transitioning to a new offense under coach Skip Holtz, Daniels hasn't been called upon to run as much. Since rushing for 107 yards in a loss at Florida, Daniels has totaled 60 yards on 44 carries the last four games, including 3 yards on 27 carries in his two Big East losses.
Running less hasn't made him a better passer. Against Division I-A opponents this season, Daniels has two touchdowns and 10 interceptions, the latter being more than he threw all of last season. His troubles have been especially bad on third down, when the Bulls have converted just 17 times in six games, the lowest total out of 120 I-A teams. He has overlooked open receivers, and four of his interceptions have come in the final 90 seconds of the first half, where they cost the Bulls momentum.
Coaches showed Daniels this week that many of his mistakes occurred after he scrambled outside the pocket, forcing him to make decisions on the run, outside the confines of the scripted play. Daniels' instinct, Holtz says, too often is to try to make a play even if the risk outweighs the potential reward. Holtz was asked if Daniels thinks about simply not throwing the ball in that situation, to just run like he used to or throw the ball away.
"I would like to think so," Holtz said. "We are trying to get that seed planted."
Quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas says it's not unusual for a young quarterback to struggle learning a new offense. He stresses patience.
"It's an ongoing process, a daily process, a play-by-play process. It's something that takes time," Vaas said. "Until you've ever sat in that seat and had to make decisions with all hell breaking loose around you, your own heart beating a thousand times a minute, it's a difficult thing to do."
Still, coaches have expressed optimism that small changes in the right areas can get the offense back in rhythm.
"There are always things I can do better," Daniels said. "I'm not going to point the finger at anybody, whether it's a penalty here or a penalty there, an incompletion or interception or a fumble or whatever you want to call it. I'm the guy on the hot seat, the guy that's taken this role at my position. … I'm just going to try to move on as an offense."