TAMPA — The scoreboard from Saturday afternoon alone — with 49 points from Rutgers, the most ever allowed at home — was plenty exasperating for defensive coordinator Wally Burnham.
"It's frustrating. Eatless, sleepless days, because you feel so responsible," Burnham said. "Because you've let these kids down. If you don't feel that way, then you don't mind losing."
But what has made the Bulls' defensive struggles especially frustrating is that so much of the problems are mental: not being in the right places, not recognizing and remembering tendencies and formations that have been covered in preparation.
"It's been bad all year, far more than it's ever been here," Burnham said. "We've got to keep working. I can't explain it. We work formations over and over and over. When the bullets start flying, the kids sometimes fire blanks. That's kind of what's happened. That's my responsibility, and that's not just a standard answer. It's my responsibility to get them lined up, but at some point, too, they've got to study the tapes and listen in practice. It's a two-way street, and we've got to do a better job."
With young players consistently out of position, Burnham has heard criticism that maybe his defense is too complicated. If anything, the opposite might be true, as a defense made easier for USF to comprehend is also one more easily figured out by opponents.
"People say, 'Maybe you're doing too much.' We've cut way back from what we've ever done. That might be part of our problem," Burnham said.
Take Rutgers' 93-yard touchdown pass to WR Kenny Britt in the fourth quarter. USF had three safeties in on the play, but none back to help guard against a deep pass, leaving CB Jerome Murphy alone on an island covering the Big East's leading receiver. Murphy had a chance to tackle Britt for what would have been a 30-yard gain, but instead of wrapping him up, he lowered his shoulder, allowing Britt to bounce off in stride and cutting off pursuing S Nate Allen in the process.
Two of USF's smartest defensive players, S Danny Verpaele and LB Brouce Mompremier, are out with season-ending injuries, so the Bulls have lost two coaches on the field and experts in Burnham's defense. One thing fans need not worry about: Burnham said as hard as this season has been, he has no plans for his 42nd year of coaching to be his last.
"No, I'm enjoying it too much," he said. "You don't enjoy this kind of stuff (losing), but you go through it, see if you can get those kids to respond to hard times."
HOME AGAIN: The men's soccer team entered last weekend hopeful of getting a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would give it a first-round bye. After wins against Notre Dame and St. John's to win the Big East championship on their homefield, the Bulls were rewarded with a top-eight seed — No. 8, specifically, which could translate to a second home game in the third round.
"Just a team that caught fire, with hard work and helping each other, really," said coach George Kiefer, whose team plays host to the winner of Harvard-Massachusetts on Tuesday. "All the teams were as talented; this was just a team that fought and worked for it, that wanted it."
STILL ALIVE: Clutch wins at home last weekend against Seton Hall and Villanova gave the volleyball team the eighth and final spot in the Big East tournament. The Bulls fly to Pittsburgh, where they'll have a tough opening-round match Friday against top-seeded St. John's, which swept USF in three games in their regular-season meeting.
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.