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USF’s Charlie Strong facing a grim sequel of sorts at UConn

A loss to the Huskies would be strikingly similar to the Kansas defeat that sealed Strong’s fate at Texas.
USF offensive lineman Joshua Blanchard (57) and coach Charlie Strong exit the Raymond James Stadium field after Saturday's 48-21 loss to SMU.
USF offensive lineman Joshua Blanchard (57) and coach Charlie Strong exit the Raymond James Stadium field after Saturday's 48-21 loss to SMU. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Oct. 4, 2019

TAMPA ― Barely 34 months have elapsed since Charlie Strong trudged off a cold field in a college football wasteland, a stern portrait of defeat and resignation.

Seven days after that 24-21 loss to Big 12 basement tenant Kansas, Strong was fired as Texas coach, having compiled a 16-21 record in three seasons. Fifteen days after that, USF hired him to replace Willie Taggart.

“The future of this program is very bright, and I’m thrilled to be leading it,” Strong told a standing-room-only crowd inside a university ballroom at his introductory rally. “Together we will accomplish great things.”

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A quick career rehabilitation was presumed. Strong would win immediately with Taggart’s players (including fringe Heisman candidate Quinton Flowers), replenish the talent base via the sprawling in-state recruiting network he had spent decades building, and possibly capture a division or even conference crown before the next Power Five gig beckoned.

Instead, Strong found himself at a podium before a handful of reporters Monday, his deep, gravelly voice bearing a tone of exasperation.

“Right now, we’ve got to get it on track,” Strong said, the wounds of Saturday’s 48-21 home loss to SMU still fresh. “It can be fixed, and we’ve just got to do a better job of coaching.”

At 59, Strong’s presumed second act in the Power Five has been preempted by a potentially grim sequel. He and his embattled team, loser of its last nine games against Division I-A opposition, will try to salvage hope and confidence Saturday at Connecticut.

But it could be a Kansas scenario all over again. For any Bulls fan, the similarities are too eerie to ponder.

Like Kansas, which entered that Texas game 1-9 three seasons ago, Connecticut (1-3, 0-1 American Athletic Conference) is a league doormat, having lost its last 19 against Division I-A opposition. A mildly chilly day is expected Saturday in East Hartford, not wholly unlike the conditions in Kansas (47 degrees at kickoff) that November afternoon in 2016.

A sparse crowd also is anticipated, probably far smaller than the 25,673 announced at Memorial Stadium for the Jayhawks upset.

And if the Bulls (1-3, 0-1) somehow lose, conventional thought says Strong’s fate will be sealed. For the second time in four seasons.

“I mean, every week you coach for your job, but I don’t worry about that,” Strong said Monday. “My main focus right now is to get our team going.”

Can’t happen a Saturday too soon.

Though attendance for the SMU loss was announced at 28,850, the actual turnout appeared far smaller. Strong’s weekly news conference two days later attracted only four reporters not affiliated with the university or USF’s student newspaper.

And the prevailing social media sentiment over Strong’s job performance became acidic weeks ago. So just how did a career resuscitation get supplanted by a regression? Even the casual observer could cite several reasons.

Though its offensive line features the AAC’s most experienced right side (guard Billy Atterbury, tackle Marcus Norman), USF is being consistently dominated up front. As a result, the Bulls have struggled to establish any kind of run game (league-worst 97.8 rushing yards a contest), allowing opponents to tee off in passing situations. The 20 sacks the Bulls have allowed also is a league-worst.

“It’s the most frustrating, the worst four games I’ve ever been through as an offensive coordinator,” first-year coordinator Kerwin Bell said. “It’s on us coaches, but it’s also on the players, and I tell ’em that.”

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Defensively, they continue being exposed up front despite a concerted offseason effort to increase mass and strength, struggle with run fits, and periodically seem misaligned. The 188.8 rushing yards USF surrenders per game is a league-high.

“I’m gonna put myself to blame first ... because we have to get them in the right position,” said third-year defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary, who acknowledged calling a pair of all-out blitzes on third-and-short that resulted in long SMU runs. “It stops with me.”

All this despite decent recruiting classes on Strong’s watch.

USF’s previous three signing classes were ranked fourth or better by Rivals. Moreover, Strong has flourished in the transfer portal; the opening-night lineup featured seven Power Five transfers.

All of which fuels the detractors who insist the problem lies in the system, or at least those implementing it.

“This coaching staff cares a lot about the athletes here and the future after football,” said middle linebacker Patrick Macon, one of those transfers (Oklahoma State). “The players, we’re 100 percent behind the coaches.”

If nothing else, Strong seemingly has managed to keep a tense situation from growing toxic. To this point, no player has made a publicly disparaging statement or issued a combustible tweet, and no sideline meltdowns have been spotted.

“We’re still feeling confident,” Macon added. “That’s the word of the day, confidence is key.”

Yet even confidence could become a casualty with a defeat Saturday. So, too, could Strong. If nothing else, the unrest will swirl with dust-storm intensity.

You know, like they have in Kansas.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.