TAMPA — The excitement of three straight 500-yard efforts against lesser competition is long gone, and USF's offense sits at the midpoint of the season with four offensive touchdowns in three games against BCS-level competition.
USF coach Skip Holtz said Tuesday that for an offense to be successful, it must have either the ability to score on big plays or consistently convert third downs. In its past two losses, first at Pittsburgh then Saturday at Connecticut, the Bulls had neither.
"This (loss) is one probably that is more looking back with anger," Holtz said. "We've got to get it straight. We have too many guys playing too hard and too many guys playing too well. We have an obligation as a coaching staff to get it straight and put a team on the field that has the ability to win.
"It's a product business. It's not how many guys played well. It's whether you won or lost. … That's what we have to get done as a football staff and a football team."
Consider third down, a recurring problem for the Bulls (4-2, 0-2 Big East) from last season. In three easy home wins against Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP, USF converted 55.2 percent of its third downs; in the other three tougher games against Notre Dame and the past two losses the Bulls have converted 27.5 percent of the time.
Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said the third-down problem is set up by a lack of consistent success on first and second downs, setting up situations where the defense knows what is coming. Quarterback B.J. Daniels went 2-for-8 passing on third downs Saturday, this after going 1-for-6 for 3 yards in the second half of the Pittsburgh loss.
"You want to stay out of third and must-pass situations," Fitch said. "It gives a free rein to the defense. … Where our talents lie, it's probably not our strong suit. We have to continue to work and find ways to be successful."
Connecticut's defense had been porous against the pass in losses to Western Michigan and West Virginia, giving up a combined 948 passing yards. But USF didn't throw downfield, citing weather conditions and less man coverage from the Huskies. Taking away screen passes, the Bulls went 4-for-13 for 50 yards on downfield passes, but quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas said the offense wasn't going to change its identity because of the success other teams had enjoyed against UConn.
"I think it's extremely unfair to compare what one philosophical group of people do with a different philosophical group of people," Vaas said. "That's what we all get caught up in: 'Oh, look at that.' But that's not who we are. … We are a run-the-football, play-action type of passing team and football team. We are not going to become a spread-'em-out and drop back and throw it 50 times a game. That is what West Virginia and that is what Western Michigan (are)."
Third downs have been a problem, but what Fitch said stood out most to him in Saturday's loss were the four turnovers, one of which came inside the UConn 10-yard line and another on an interception inside the 20.
"It's the first sloppy game I thought we played," Fitch said. "We haven't done everything right every week obviously; nobody does. It's just frustrating because we have not played that way. We need to get it corrected to continue on and do what we need to do."
With speed and talent at the receiver position, Fitch acknowledged the need for more downfield passes, to give those players more chances to make plays when the defense isn't lined up to specifically guard against such big gains.
"We've got to call more of those plays," he said. "I need to call more of those shots and give them a chance to do those. … We called three (Saturday) that were floods or stretch-the-field plays. Sometimes you don't see them because they don't get executed or you have a protection issue. It's an emphasis that I have to do a better job of calling some of those for them. We have to execute them, too."