TAMPA — Getting that elusive first interception of 2012 will, in comparison, be easy for USF if it happens Saturday against Syracuse. It needs just a single break on a single play.
But as the Bulls seek to end a five-game losing streak, the longest in the program's 16 years, perhaps a bigger, more sustained challenge will be finding a way to run consistently against a Syracuse defense that has been the Big East's toughest in league play.
"I think we made a lot of strides fundamentally in the run game (against Louisville)," coach Skip Holtz said after the Bulls rushed for 197 yards in a 27-25 loss to the No. 16 Cardinals on Saturday. "To see the way the offensive line was coming off the ball, the holes they were creating … there were some true holes to run through. It was really encouraging to see some of the improvements there."
In three conference games, Syracuse is giving up a minuscule average of 35.3 rushing yards per game, including holding Pittsburgh to 27 yards on 37 carries and Connecticut to minus-6 yards in a 40-10 rout last week. USF will run at that defense with a trio of backs: seniors Demetris Murray and Lindsey Lamar, and junior Marcus Shaw, who will share carries, and at times, the backfield.
The Bulls opened last week's game with Lamar and Shaw lined up together, an alignment emblematic of how well the three runners have shared the workload throughout the season. Murray came off the bench to rush for 57 yards on 13 carries.
"As a running back group, we're very close," Lamar said. "I'm at Demetris' house every day. Shaw is always around. We all stay together. Every day after practice, we break it down on 'We're all we've got.' At the end of the day, as a running back group, we're all we've got. We've got to look out for each other."
Lamar, tied for the team lead with five touchdowns, had career highs of 110 yards on 15 carries against Louisville, the first 100-yard game for a USF running back in nearly a year (Darrell Scott had 100 in a loss to Rutgers on Nov. 5).
Murray leads the team with 384 rushing yards, and Shaw, recovered from the ankle injury that limited him for a month, said he's happy to share the carries with Lamar and Murray but still eager to take on a bigger role when his name is called.
"I'm ready. I've been ready since I got here in 2010. As a matter of fact, I was ready in 2009 when I committed," Shaw said.
Holtz has the option to ride the hot hand among the three backs. Last week it was Lamar, who has also caught three touchdown passes out of the backfield from quarterback B.J. Daniels. The backs' versatility is a valued strength on a team that has struggled to find consistency at most positions.
"Having Shaw and Lindsey back there really is making us significantly better this season," Holtz said. "It's definitely a committee, and there's definitely three guys that are going to play.
"We're going to need them all as we go down the stretch."