TAMPA — The praise still comes with genuine fear every week, as opposing coaches talk nervously about the challenge of facing USF's defensive line, of not letting the Bulls' pass rush and senior end George Selvie take over a football game.
"I wish George had left early, that rascal, because he's been an absolute thorn in our side since he's been there," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said Monday on the Big East's weekly teleconference. "He's the greatest rush guy in the game today. He's like Batman out there. He's everywhere."
But for two years, Selvie has had the near-impossible challenge of living up to his sophomore year, when he led the nation with 311/2 tackles for loss. After seven games that season, Selvie had 111/2 sacks; in 24 games since, he has totaled 111/2, including three this season.
"It always comes back to that: 'Where is the sophomore-year George?' and stuff like that," Selvie said Monday as he prepares for Friday's game against the No. 20 Mountaineers. "I can't listen to all that stuff. … I always want to make more plays, but my play right now really doesn't matter. I just want to win as a whole team."
Facing a stout Pittsburgh offensive line Saturday, Selvie was held to one total tackle, and USF didn't get a sack until bringing down a backup with five minutes left, a 41-14 loss already long out of reach. Without much pressure from the Bulls' front four, Pitt's Bill Stull carved up the secondary, completing his first 11 passes and leading the Panthers to points on seven of their first eight possessions.
In giving up 75 points in back-to-back losses to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the Bulls have lost some defensive swagger.
"It's been hard for us the last two weeks, getting beaten so badly, getting so many points on our defense," Selvie said. "We got down on ourselves."
The surprising emergence of junior end Jason Pierre-Paul, who has a team-best 111/2 tackles for loss, has taken some of the pressure off Selvie, and junior Craig Marshall leads the team with four sacks, giving the Bulls three outside rushers with big-play potential. The Bulls have 17 sacks, four less than at this point two seasons ago.
Pierre-Paul has two deflections that were easy interceptions and returned one pick of his own for a touchdown at Syracuse. Marshall got the final clinching sack in a win at Florida State, and Selvie forced a fumble deep in Cincinnati territory two weeks ago but wasn't able to recover.
Asked why the line wasn't able to come up with impact plays at Pittsburgh, defensive coordinator Joe Tresey pointed to a lack of emotion and focus.
"We just didn't play very well as a defense," Tresey said. "We never got going. It is what it is. There's nothing you can do about it. It's very important we bounce back this week. Our energy level and our enthusiasm has to pick up. We addressed that (Sunday) as our No. 1 factor."
If there's an opponent that Selvie should have energy and enthusiasm against, it's West Virginia. As a freshman, Selvie returned a Pat White fumble 9 yards for a touchdown to spark an upset win in Morgantown. He also had 31/2 tackles for loss and forced another fumble.
Two years ago, Selvie had eight tackles and a sack in another Bulls win in Tampa; last year, he forced and recovered a fumble with 11/2 tackles for loss in a Bulls loss.
With another national ESPN2 audience for another weeknight showdown, Selvie will have a platform to show he's the same player who was a consensus All-American two years ago.
"We've lost two games, and the only way to fix that is to win a football game," Selvie said. "We've got a Friday night game, national television, they're coming into our house. It's a big game for us, and we need to go out and get a win."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.