When it comes to allowing points, this year's USF defense has been tougher than the star-studded 2009 unit that sent five players to the NFL, and in yards allowed, the Bulls are within 4 yards a game of matching last year's defense.
The most glaring difference in this season's defense is its consistent inability to force turnovers from opponents. USF has a Big East-low four takeaways in six conference games, on pace for the second-lowest total in the Bulls' 14-year history. Fumbles, in particular, have been hard to come by, with USF recovering just three on defense all season, matching the low mark out of 120 schools in Division I-A football.
"It's something we have not done a very good job of defensively," coach Skip Holtz said this week. "As hard as we've played, as physically as we've played, as good a job as we have done of keeping the ball in front of us and playing physical against the run, that's one of the areas that really has … I'm not going to call it a disappointment, but it's an area we definitely need to improve if we're going to be a better football team."
This isn't a new sermon to USF's defense, which forced four turnovers in its opener against I-AA Stony Brook but has just nine in nine games since. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder sees opponents turning the ball over on tape against other teams, but with uncanny consistency, they haven't made the same mistakes against the Bulls this season.
"Teams have really done a good job of protecting the ball," Snyder said. "I see guys coming with the tomahawk on some of the sacks. I see guys pulling at the ball. … I'm not going to make a big, big deal out of it. We'll work on it every day. They typically come in bunches."
If anything, USF's defense might have tried to get takeaways too much in last week's 17-10 loss to Pittsburgh. The winning touchdown came on a play where several defenders tried to pry the ball loose from Panthers running back Dion Lewis, but none brought him down on a 22-yard score. Snyder saw defensive end Ryne Giddins bearing down on Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri, who at the last split-second brought the ball down just as he was hit, avoiding a turnover.
"His sixth sense told him to protect the football," Snyder said in disbelief. "Good for them. That's great on his part. Let's not press. They'll come. They'll come."
If there's hope that USF's turnover luck could change, it's in the knowledge that today's opponent, Miami, has 29 turnovers this season, the most of any team in a BCS conference. The Hurricanes have thrown 21 interceptions, matching the most in I-A football.
Holtz knows that for whatever reason, the ball hasn't popped loose against the Bulls. Just as his defense has been unlucky, the offense has been remarkable, fumbling the ball 17 times this season but somehow recovering 13 of them. The fact that the Hurricanes lost three fumbles and threw three interceptions against Virginia Tech last week only makes Holtz fear Miami will be more careful.
"I'm sure Miami turned the ball over six times last week," he said, "and this weekend, they'll have the thing glued to the side of their chest, where they're not going to let it come out."
Few turnovers means fewer short fields and a tougher time for USF's offense, which has struggled to find the end zone, with 10 offensive touchdowns in six league games. Of those 10 touchdown drives, only two have been shorter than 48 yards.
"We can't ask our offense to drive 80-90 yards every time we get the ball and expect to score a lot of points," Holtz said.
And if turnovers are hard to come by, defensive touchdowns seem impossible. Freshman safety Mark Joyce returned an interception for a score against Stony Brook, but that has been USF's only defensive touchdown. After racking up six defensive scores in the 2007 season, the Bulls have totaled just two in the three seasons since.
The frustration with turnovers is that the Bulls see no obvious remedy; it has been a focal point in practice and game-planning, to no avail. When USF's seniors were freshmen in 2007, the Bulls had 42 takeaways, more than three times the current total. Senior cornerback Mistral Raymond had a key interception in USF's win against Cincinnati but dropped at least two other potential picks that could have been touchdowns. Awareness of the issue is not a problem for the team's top defensive players.
"Sadly, I don't have the answer to that. I wish I did," said Raymond when asked why turnovers have been scarce. "It's definitely something we put on ourselves. … We have to do a better job with that in the next couple of games here. Definitely in a game like this, turnovers will be key."