TORONTO — Ask Joe Tresey what USF's defense needs to do to finish its season on an upswing in today's International Bowl against Northern Illinois, and the checklist is familiar, perhaps even frustratingly so, in his mind.
"It all comes down to the same thing: execution," Tresey said. "We have to do our job, play smart and penalty free, keep the ball inside and in front, get off the field on third down and don't give up explosive plays. It doesn't change."
What USF has needed to do hasn't changed, but what the Bulls have been able to do on defense this season has varied from week to week, despite experienced senior leaders at key positions.
"Just playing as one — that's the most important thing," said senior linebacker Kion Wilson, due back after missing the Connecticut game with an ankle injury. "Don't have breaks anywhere throughout the defense. … Having the familiar faces around (back from injury), guys you've been on the field with since camp, knowing you have the trust and the unity to work together, is something we haven't had all year."
Northern Illinois has won with its running game, ranking 17th nationally with 202 rushing yards per game. The Huskies can run the option at times, and have two solid backs in Chad Spann and Me'co Brown, who combined for six 100-yard games this season. NIU's two quarterbacks combine for another 562 rushing yards, in an offense that runs the ball more than twice for every pass attempt.
"If we don't establish the front line, it's going to be a rough game for us," USF defensive tackle Terrell McClain said.
The Bulls have struggled against strong, deep running teams this season — Miami rushed for 240 yards, Pittsburgh went for 214, and Cincinnati 189 in lopsided wins.
The Huskies' offense has been consistent, scoring at least 19 points in every game this season — USF, by comparison, has scored 17 or fewer five times. NIU has lost three games in which it has scored 31 or more, so its offense is arguably the most consistent unit in today's game.
USF's defense can point to specific numbers that have translated to wins and losses — The Bulls are 7-0 when holding teams to 22 points or fewer, 0-5 when giving up more. The same records apply when USF allows 350 or fewer yards of total offense.
The Bulls have had key injuries in the second half of the season — defensive linemen Craig Marshall and Aaron Harris have been limited, and linebackers Wilson and Sabbath Joseph and cornerback Quenton Washington missed the Bulls' last game, a 29-27 loss Dec. 5 at Connecticut. All are recovered and available, so being short-handed won't be an excuse for the Bulls.
"Everybody's healthy," Tresey said. "We're as healthy as we've been since the Cincinnati game, maybe even Florida State."
It is the final game for leaders such as defensive end George Selvie, linebacker Chris Robinson, safety Nate Allen and cornerback Jerome Murphy. They have the motivation to finish their careers strong, and the returning players are just as driven to send the seniors out with a game to be proud of.
"It's kind of sad. It's their last game, guys you've been playing with, like Nate, Murph, Kion," safety Jerrell Young said. "It's hard, but you want to win this for them."
Times writer Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.