TAMPA -- Thanks in part to a unique motivational ploy from its coordinator, USF's defense has spent the final stretch of the season playing out of its mind instead of playing out the string.
With tensions mounting and bowl hopes dwindling in early November, veteran coordinator Chuck Bresnahan challenged his group to finish the last four games among the nation's top 10 in total defense.
"We reached a point where there was some frustration building in, and when you let that roll downhill like a cancer -- I hate to use that word -- it can really, really tear a team apart and a unit apart," Bresnahan said. "So we tried to give them something to focus on."
Since then, the Bulls have allowed an average of 265.7 yards in three games, which would rank third nationally -- behind only Michigan State and Louisville -- if it held up over the course of the season.
"We've always had something to play for," senior DT Luke Sager said, "but then having this as one of our goals definitely helped us come out to practice and come to the games and play harder."
In USF's last four contests, opposings offenses have been held to at least 99 yards below their season average. The last two foes -- SMU and UCF -- scored 16 and 12.8 points fewer than their season average coming in, respectively.
"It's really a seniors' challenge and everybody's bought into it, wants to send 'em out the right way," Bresnahan said. "And the best way to do it is to worry about something you can control."
ROOKIES DRAW RAVES: Bresnahan lauded the play of the shorthanded secondary, which featured four freshmen, in Friday's 23-20 loss at UCF. Two senior starters -- Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins -- were suspended before kickoff and have since been dismissed.
UCF junior QB Blake Bortles threw two picks -- tying his season high -- and had his fourth-lowest passing yardage total (219) of the season. Nearly one-fourth of the total came on his 52-yard TD strike to Breshad Perriman late in the fourth quarter.
"It's a collective effort," Bresnahan said. "And I think they'd be the first one to tell you that it's everybody else working around them and doing their job and not trying to do too much that allows them to go back and just relax and play."
AUDIBLE: "I'm just gonna speak from the heart and let it flow." -- senior DE Ryne Giddins, on what he'll say if the seniors are allowed to give a final address to the team
Perched atop Janarion Grant's dresser in the two-bedroom dorm he shares with three others at Rutgers is a framed poem given to him by his Pasco High coach.
For 15 years, Tom McHugh has presented the same keepsake — he doesn't divulge the verse's message — to those Pirate seniors who leave more of an imprint than impression.
"Sometimes you have a senior that you know and he's part of the team," McHugh said. "Then there's a kid you have a certain bond with. It's a poem-type thing."...
USF women at Florida Gulf Coast
When/where: 7:05; Alico Arena, Fort Myers
Records: USF 4-2, FGCU 4-3
Notable: The Bulls play their first game without 6-foot-2 senior G Inga Orekhova (7 ppg), who had knee surgery Monday. Sophomore Courtney Williams, the Bulls' top scorer (16 ppg), replaces her in the starting lineup. … The Bulls' two losses have resulted almost exclusively from poor shooting; in six games they're 31-for-123 (25.2 percent) from 3-point range. They're outrebounding opponents by more than 10 per game. … FGCU returns only two regulars from the 27-7 team that went undefeated in Atlantic Sun play last year. It has lost to TCU, Southern Miss and Stanford....
USF men at George Mason
When/where: 7, Patriot Center, Fairfax, Va.
Records: USF 4-2, George Mason 5-2
Notable: The Bulls, seeking their first 2-0 start on the road since 2006, should have a solid grasp of the Patriots' tendencies and personnel. USF assistant Mike Wells spent the previous two seasons as an assistant at George Mason, which fell to the Bulls by four in Tampa last year. … Don't be surprised if the Patriots start all upperclassmen, including three seniors. … Bulls coach Stan Heath has used the same starting lineup the past three games but still is refining his rotation. Six Bulls are averaging at least 7.5 points and 2.5 rebounds, but the team collectively has a minus-1.2 rebound margin....
TAMPA —The smoke alarm hasn't been triggered, but the conditions are prime for plumes. Calamity remains in the distance, but concern is front and center. No one in the Bulls basketball camp is panicking, but some soon may be pacing.
Saturday's 65-60 loss to 3-4 Detroit was ugly. The Bulls' RPI (261, according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi), is uglier. Fortunately for USF (4-2), the NCAA Tournament selection committee doesn't convene for another three months....
The college careers of USF defensive backs Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins have ended two games prematurely.
Coach Willie Taggart announced Tuesday the seniors, both of whom were suspended for Friday's loss at UCF due to an undisclosed team violation, have been dismissed from the program. Both are set to graduate in December, he added.
"They've done a lot for our football program and unfortunately made a mistake and they've got to deal with their mistake," Taggart said.
"We're trying to change a culture in our entire football program to one that is total commitment to the football team and winning, and we will. There are consequences that come with anything that counters that. And those consequences will be paid."
Neither player's name appeared in a local arrest-records search. In a text message to the Tampa Bay Times, Jenkins declined to comment specifically on the dismissal....
USF 6-foot-2 senior guard Inga Orekhova, the top returning scorer from the Bulls' NCAA Tournament team last season, will miss roughly 4-6 weeks after undergoing surgery Monday to her left knee, Coach Jose Fernandez confirmed.
No medical redshirt is anticipated. "We expect her back," Fernandez said.
A preseason all-American Athletic Conference pick, Orekhova had an MRI early last week. Fernandez didn't specify the nature of the injury, but it coincided with her erratic shooting touch at the season's outset.
In six games, she's tied for fifth on the team with 7.0 points per game, shooting 25.9 percent (14-for-54) from the floor and 8-for-33 (24.2 percent) from 3-point range....
TAMPA -- Coach Willie Taggart said Monday senior defensive backs Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins remain indefinitely suspended, leaving their status for Saturday's season finale at
Rutgers in question.
Both missed the Bulls' 23-20 loss Friday at UCF due to an undisclosed violation of team rules, but the revamped, freshman-heavy secondary mostly shined in their absence.
Rookie Hassan Childs, thrust into Joyce's safety spot, had four tackles. Classmate Nate Godwin, the other regular safety, had a fourth-quarter interception on which USF's offense couldn't capitalize. Freshman CB Lamar Robbins had a second-quarter pick.
"It was great for those guys to step in there and not miss a beat," Taggart said. "We probably played by far our best defense of the season. It was good to see that out of our young guys. At one point, there were all freshmen in the secondary."
One player definitely out Saturday is backup junior MLB Hans Louis, whom Taggart said tore his ACL Friday night.
FRIGID FINALE: If penalties and turnovers weren't enough to concern the Bulls, they also somehow must place mind over the mercury. Saturday's projected low at Rutgers is 25 degrees, with a 50-percent rain chance.
Friday's kickoff at UCF -- 59 degrees -- was USF's coldest of the year. Taggart won't hear any of it.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," he said on the American Athletic Conference coaches teleconference Monday. "We're Floridian, we talk about heat down here, baby."
MR. VERSATILE: Rutgers coach Kyle Flood suggested Monday that Scarlet Knights senior Jeremy Deering -- a Leto High alumnus -- will have a solid shot at a pro career.
The reason: Deering's versatility. At various points, Deering has lined up at kick returner, receiver, tailback and safety for Rutgers. Currently sixth on the team in tackles (37), Deering has 993 total yards for his career, and 2,078 career all-purpose yards.
"He's big, he's strong, he's fast," Flood said. "But it's really his ability to be selfless that has created a tremendous career for him and I think is going to give him an opportunity at the next level."
ODDS AND ENDS: The Bulls now rank 21st nationally in total defense (350.4 ypg), but 121st in total offense (266.0 ypg). ... Rutgers freshman return specialist Janarion Grant, a former three-way Pasco High star who returned his first collegiate kick for a 100-yard TD, received his first college offer from USF. ... On Monday's teleconference, UCF coach George O'Leary said, "You can see that the game between us and USF is going to grow into a great game for the (conference)."
AUDIBLE: "Like I've been telling them all year, you're going to miss it. Try to enjoy the moment, enjoy the game, enjoy playing with your teammates, enjoy practicing this week with your teammates -- you're going to miss it all. Don't forget to have fun in your last game with this team. Just go out and have fun." -- Taggart, when asked what his message is to his seniors entering the season's last game
I couldn't cast a ballot in the immediate wake of the Miracle on Iron. To fairly assess where Auburn should reside in my top 25, I had to allow the emotion to subside. Then I had to ponder it, sleep on it then ponder it some more.
Twelve hours later, I arrived at this personal conclusion: The Tigers (11-1) pulled off the greatest finish in college football history, but they're still No. 3 in America.
For all the Tigers' resilience, I couldn't in good conscience propel them past undefeated Ohio State. While I acknowledge Auburn has played a tougher schedule, leap-frogging the Tigers over the Buckeyes would violate a personal conviction.
I've had Ohio State ahead of Auburn all along, and won't penalize the former for winning a rivalry game against a plus-.500 team in its most hostile environment of the year. It's not that Auburn doesn't deserve No. 2, it's that OSU doesn't warrant a demotion.
Elsewhere, Alabama falls only to No. 4 because the Tide's lone loss was to a top-three team on the game's final play. South Carolina remains ahead of SEC East champ Missouri because the Gamecocks (10-2) defeated the Tigers (11-1).
Texas A&M, USC and Fresno State (which hasn't played anyone) exited, while Texas, Georgia and Iowa entered. The Hawkeyes (8-4) sort of snuck up on me; their losses have been to four higher-ranked teams (Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin).
2. Ohio State
5. Oklahoma State
6. Michigan State
7. South Carolina
11. Arizona State
14. Northern Illinois
TAMPA — A couple of months from now, when bracketology is a buzzword and RPI is the statistic of preference, USF's deflating loss Saturday night against Detroit could haunt its psyche.
Or even burst its bubble.
The Bulls (4-2) squandered an eight-point lead in the second half's first five minutes and never seemed to regain their rhythm. The Titans (4-4), meantime, converted 11 of 12 free throws in the final 4:30 to clinch a 65-60 win before a Sun Dome audience of 3,225....
USF AD Woolard has car tires slashed at UCF
USF athletic director Doug Woolard was given a courtesy car for the 98-mile drive back to Tampa after his vehicle was vandalized during Friday night's game at UCF.
The tires on Woolard's Audi were slashed during the Knights' 23-20 win over the Bulls, UCF Police Department spokesman Chad Binette confirmed. The car was parked next to the Wayne Densch Sports Center, adjacent to the on-campus Bright House Networks Stadium, Binette said....
University of South Florida athletic director Doug Woolard was given a courtesy car for the 98-mile drive back to Tampa after his vehicle was vandalized during Friday's game at UCF.
UCF Police Department spokesman Chad Binette confirmed the tires on Woolard's Audi were slashed at some point during the Knights' 23-20 victory against the Bulls. It was parked next to the Wayne Densch Sports Center, which is adjacent to Bright House Networks Stadium, Binette said....
ORLANDO — At the urging of their school, UCF fans converged Friday at Bright House Networks Stadium mostly in black. Surely, their 17th-ranked team would follow suit.
Nah, the Knights came out in gold jerseys. It wouldn't be their first blunder.
Behind another dominant defensive effort, and a resurgent one from freshman quarterback Mike White, USF pounced on the hosts' turnover propensity to almost bring fresh meaning to Black Friday in Orlando....
ORLANDO — The Bulls lost half their starting secondary before kickoff when seniors Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins were suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules Friday.
Neither was on the travel roster released before kickoff, and it wasn't immediately clear if they would be eligible for next weekend's season finale at Rutgers.
Freshman Hassan Childs replaced Joyce at a safety spot, while redshirt sophomore Kenneth Durden replaced Jenkins at cornerback opposite Brandon Salinas. Durden had a fumble recovery — the first of his career — on the game's sixth play....