TAMPA — It probably seems counterintuitive to many Bulls football fans, given their disappointing 5-7 record in 2011, but USF actually made the biggest improvement in total offense of any I-A school.
USF's offense improved by 123.4 yards per game from Skip Holtz’s first season in Tampa, jumping from 106th nationally to 31st — a statistic that is both encouraging and confounding to Bulls coaches.
"You dive in and say, 'Why did we not win more games when offensively, we were that much more explosive?' " Holtz said last week. "You're right there. We just weren't able to finish it off."
Football success isn't ultimately measured in yards, of course, but in points and wins. And USF stands out among the most improved teams in total offense as the one unable to translate it into a better record.
Of the nine teams that increased their total offense by 100 yards or more, USF was the only one not to improve its record. The other eight got better by an average of 3.5 wins from 2010; USF won three fewer games. USF's average scoring increased by 5.2 points, less than half the scoreboard improvement for schools like Houston (plus 11.5) and Baylor (plus 14.2).
"We're the only team in the country to lose three games on the final play of the game," Holtz said. "Things that take the air out of your lungs. We had the lead or were tied in the fourth quarter of 10 of the 12 games."
USF was outscored 64-14 in the fourth quarter and overtime of its first six losses, failing to score after the third quarter in four of those. Injuries played a role, but Holtz said "the disappointing part" of the struggles was a dropoff in pass defense, which dropped from 24th nationally to 84th in passing yards allowed.
Over the holiday break, Holtz and his staff focused on watching the second half of the losses, trying to identify what went wrong at the end of games and what can be done to avoid the same.
"After you lost about four of them, late in the game, you almost felt like when you had the lead late in a game, it became a 'Oh, no, we have the lead late,' " Holtz said. "I think that's partly what happened. You have a young, inexperienced team and you don't have a lot of senior leadership that's going to take over a game at the end."
USF won't have that excuse in 2012. After losing just six senior starters, the Bulls may have as many as 13 seniors starting this fall, including key players such as QB B.J. Daniels, RB Demetris Murray, DT Cory Grissom and LB Sam Barrington.
"I think this senior class is extremely motivated. I think they're embarrassed for where we are from a win-loss standpoint, that we weren't able to close the door," Holtz said. "So much of that is experience. … It is more than just talent that it takes to win."
THIS AND THAT: Holtz has lost defensive grad assistant Byron Thomas, who is following defensive coordinator Mark Snyder to Texas A&M to serve in the same role. He worked with USF's defensive backs in 2011. … Softball opened practice Monday, and coach Ken Eriksen is encouraged by his team's potential after it missed the NCAA regionals the past three seasons. "They've got a great opportunity to make a lot of noise nationally this year," Eriksen said.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.