CINCINNATI — USF has the same 6-2 record as a year ago, the same opponent in Cincinnati, and again meets the Bearcats trying to stop a losing skid — two in a row last year, two of three now.
The biggest difference between last year's Bulls and this year's group? It's not in yards, where USF is outgaining opponents by twice as much as it did in 2007, or in points, where the scoring margin is almost four points better.
If there's a glaring change in USF football, it's in the defense's inability to force turnovers. The Bulls tied for the NCAA lead with a school-record 42 takeaways last year; this season, USF has forced just 10 turnovers in eight games.
"I think we had more playmakers (last year)," said defensive backs coach Troy Douglas, pointing to the loss of cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams and linebacker Ben Moffitt. "We're missing those guys. We're not making as many plays. … We've been a little bit more successful yardagewise, but we haven't forced as many turnovers."
The Bulls defense didn't just get turnovers last year, it scored off them, reaching the end zone six times. Aside from a fumble recovered on the 1-yard line against Syracuse, the Bulls haven't come close.
Take away safety Nate Allen's 40-yard interception return that set up the winning field goal against Kansas — perhaps the only game-changing turnover of the season — and USF's other nine takeaways have been advanced just 27 yards by the defense.
That means fewer short fields for the offense, which has had to work much harder for points. The percentage of scoring drives that are 35 yards or shorter is three times less than it was last year — of 41 scoring drives in 2008, just four (less than 10 percent) have been 35 or fewer yards.
In the last three games, including losses to unranked Pittsburgh and Louisville teams, only two of the 11 scoring drives have been shorter than 57 yards, and one was 48.
Quarterback Matt Grothe said fans — and the Bulls offense — might have been spoiled a bit by USF's opportunistic defense last year and the large number of turnovers forced.
"It makes life a lot easier," Grothe said. "Last year was kind of freaky — you don't ever have a defense that can make that many turnovers. I think a lot of people aren't seeing past that this year. … I think our offense is a lot better this year than last year, for that reason alone. Last year, we're getting turnovers left and right. This year, we're going down and scoring on our own."
Still, the offense hasn't taken much advantage of the turnovers USF has gotten. Aside from the 1-yard touchdown drive against Syracuse, the Bulls have converted the other nine turnovers into 17 points, coming away empty six times.
The Bulls expected takeaways every week last year, getting at least two in all but two of their 12 regular-season games. This season, they've forced one or none in six of their eight games.
Asked about the dropoff in takeaways, coach Jim Leavitt points to the personnel lost from last year — Jenkins and Williams allowed the defense to be more aggressive, and combined for nine interceptions. This year's cornerbacks have two, both by junior Jerome Murphy.
"We had some pretty good people getting those turnovers," Leavitt said. "We always want turnovers, we want to get them, and we're not getting as many, statistically."
In some cases, it's the same players not making plays. Consider forced fumbles — the Bulls have just three this season. They had 12 last year, 11 by players who returned this fall. Veteran leaders George Selvie, Tyrone McKenzie, Brouce Mompremier and Murphy, who each forced at least two fumbles last season, have combined for zero in 2008.
"Some years, those things happen for you, sometimes they don't," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "We work on fumble drills, work on stripping the ball, work on the same things we did last year. Last year was unbelievable, getting fumble recoveries for touchdowns on kickoffs. It hasn't been a good year for that, so far."
Tonight could get the Bulls back on the turnover bandwagon, as Cincinnati gave the ball up six times in Saturday's 40-16 loss to Connecticut. Of the Bulls' six defensive scores last season, five came in the final four games of the regular season.
"That's what we're hoping for," Burnham said. "If you throw the ball that many times, I'm a proponent of Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes: If you make 'em throw the ball that many times, hopefully something bad happens."