"The holes were wide open. Anyone could have run through them."
— Temple tailback Ryquell Armstead, who ran for 210 yards in the Owls' 46-30 win against USF last season
TAMPA —- Humidity has noticeably dissipated at USF this week, but the diplomacy is stifling.
Either by mandate or self-restraint (or both), the No. 21 Bulls haven't taken the bait. They've been asked about the humiliation, the embarrassment, the bruising fullback leads Temple inflicted on them last year in the Owls' 46-30 romp in Philadelphia.
Yet the next incendiary comment will be the first.
"We remember it," cornerback Ronnie Hoggins said. "But it's a new year, new defense, and we've improved."
"We know what Temple did to us last year," coach Charlie Strong said. "And some quotes were said, some things were said, and I just told our players, 'You can't worry about last season, we've just got to stay locked in and just go play our game.'"
"By the end of the third quarter he had (USF) guys falling to their knees. They were scared to make contact with him."
— Armstead, on 240-pound Temple fullback Nick Sharga
So the Bulls' directive this week is obvious: Suppress that pent-up fury until kickoff, and let your performance do the talking. If the first three games are an indication, the statement USF makes tonight before another national TV audience will be fairly clear.
This is a far different defense than the one annihilated last October in Philadelphia.
"One word —- savages. They're savages out there," senior tailback Darius Tice said of his defensive counterparts. "You see it in practice. They're the real reason why we (the offense) started playing with more energy and stuff."
One season after surrendering 482 yards a game (and 528 at Temple), USF ranks third in the American Athletic Conference in total defense (323.3 ypg) and first (14th nationally) against the run (89.3 ypg).
Depending on whom you ask, the Bulls (3-0) are tackling more effectively, filling gaps more efficiently, accentuating the little things with more diligence, playing with more passion, or all of the above.
"One thing I would say is our attention to detail," sophomore defensive end Greg Reaves said.
"Taking the ball away and tackling — those are two things that we're doing very, very well right now," Hoggins added. "And that's why this defense has improved."
USF's eight interceptions through three games rank second nationally behind Central Michigan (nine). USF's 2.67 sacks per game are tied for third-most in the conference.
"When you talk about defense, it's all about pursuing to the ball," Strong said. "And we're doing a really good job of pursuing to the football, and we're getting off of blocks."
So what changed from 2016? Not many players; eight guys defensive starters last year at Temple are expected to either start or play significant minutes tonight. The fresh variables are Strong and his defensive staff led by coordinator Brian Jean-Mary, entering his eighth season with Strong.
If Strong brought a blitz-from-all-angles scheme to Tampa, Jean-Mary brought the brimstone. No coach is louder at practice.
"Passion. I mean, Coach BJ is just so passionate and disciplined, and just believes in the system and what he does," Hoggins said. "And we believe in him, and we've just fed off that energy, and that's what we're doing now."
The Bulls never seemed to fully harness such energy under Jean-Mary's predecessor, Raymond Woodie. Seemingly each week, Coach Willie Taggart was bemoaning the Bulls' tackling, gap containment or eye discipline.
"I can't speak on (2016), that's a previous staff," Jean-Mary said Wednesday. "I just know this year the type of prep they've put in, and I think the best thing is, they're a lot better communication-wise from what I saw in the spring.
"We had some communication issues and we had some gap issues that we wanted to get corrected, and I think for the most part they've done that, and they've been aggressive."
That aggressiveness might hit another notch Thursday against the Owls (2-1). The memory of that Friday night in Philly remains vivid, even if the players mostly downplay it.
"Oh, it's fresh," Tice said.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.