TAMPA — USF's offense can look at it this way: There is nowhere to go but up.
Coming off the first regular-season shutout in the Bulls' 13-year history, including a 159-yard effort against Rutgers that represented a seven-year low, the offense faces a wake-up call today against Louisville.
For coordinator Mike Canales, the improvement starts with eliminating turnovers. The Bulls have committed nine in their three losses, as many as in their six wins combined.
"That's been the demise of us," Canales said. "We've worked extremely hard this whole season about making sure we don't turn the football over. We have to come out and play like we did against West Virginia (a 30-19 win on Oct. 30) and take care of the football."
Many asterisks can be affixed to USF's offensive struggles, starting with the absence of senior quarterback Matt Grothe, lost to a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 19. And Carlton Mitchell, its leading receiver, missed the Rutgers game last week and remains limited by an ankle injury.
Redshirt freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels has shown both his promise and youth, leading the Bulls to wins against ranked Florida State and West Virginia but looking lost in lopsided losses to ranked Pittsburgh and unranked Rutgers.
"We're trying to get a feel for B.J.," coach Jim Leavitt said. "It's the most important position on the team, and he's done an extraordinary job coming in and leading this offense. Overall, I think he's done some really good things."
Not only did USF fail to score at Rutgers, it got no closer than the Rutgers 24.
For an offense consistently described as "explosive," the Bulls haven't consistently put up big points. They haven't scored more than 35 against a I-A program, something they did at least once every season since joining I-A in 2001, four times last season and five times in 2007.
USF is averaging 27.3 points, down slightly from 27.6 last season. And there are dropoffs in other key stats. Passing yards are down from 239.6 yards per game to 197 and third-down conversions from 48 percent to 37. And while red zone efficiency (touchdowns when reaching the 20) is up, the Bulls are on pace to get into the red zone 33 percent less than last season.
Canales said some of the third-down problems start with a lack of consistent positive yardage on first and second down, setting up third and longs that are more predictable for opposing defenses.
"We want to be successful on first down so that you get yourself in second and third to be able to do the things you like to do," he said. "Third down is tough. If you can get into third and manageable, it gives you an opportunity to keep moving the chains."
Part of the problem is the absence of a traditional running game. Grothe led the Bulls in rushing each of the past three seasons, so it's not surprising that Daniels (530 yards) is their top rusher this season.
USF's running backs, led by senior Mo Plancher, are averaging just 65.3 yards since Daniels took over against Florida State. Daniels has more rushing yards than all of the running backs, who have yet to total 100 in any of his six games as starter.
The good news for USF?
Louisville has, statistically, one of the worst defenses in the Big East, ranking last in rushing at 150.8 yards per game and next to last in scoring at 24.7 points per game. (However, right guard Zach Hermann, USF's most experienced lineman, will sit out today with a neck injury.)
"If we rebound (today), I think it'll set the tone for the rest of the season," Canales said. "I think it's important we come out and play extremely good football.
"We're going to circle the wagons as an offense, and we're going to go."
Canales called a meeting Monday of his offensive players, asking them to renew a commitment and focus to playing their best.
"It's important for us to be on the same page," Daniels said, "to make sure we all understand what we see and trust in the schemes."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.sptimes.com/usf.