TAMPA — USF vs. UCF.
Any other year, those acronyms alone provoke plenty of interest.
But after another frustrating season for USF — the Bulls have gone 2-9, 1-6 in the American Athletic Conference — this final game against their arch-rival raises more questions than anything.
Perhaps the biggest is whether the Bulls can bounce back from a crushing 45-14 loss last Saturday to previous AAC bottom-feeder Tulane, which snapped an eight-game losing streak.
Also, how will the Bulls’ defense respond after the firing of coordinator Glenn Spencer the day after the loss?
Special teams coordinator Daniel Da Prato and linebackers coach Ernie Sims will serve as co-interim defensive coordinators against UCF (7-4, 4-3), leaving many to wonder how the defense will react to the switch.
“I was in shock when we got the word about Coach Spencer, because it came at the end of the season,” defensive tackle Thad Mangum said after practice Tuesday. “But we trust in Coach (Jeff) Scott’s decisions, and we’re ready to do whatever we have to do to help the team win.”
Scott, who has praised his team’s resiliency after struggling through one of the nation’s toughest schedules, continued looking in a positive direction.
“Regardless of previous results, I feel like there’s a good finish out there for us,” Scott said. “Here’s the last opportunity for that. There’s no better time for us to play our best game.”
USF can call on one memory where it showed great fortitude, playing its most complete game in a 34-14 victory over Temple only one week after suffering its most heartbreaking loss, 32-31 to Tulsa.
Bouncing back strong this week is a bit different, however. Because while USF had a chance to beat Tulsa, it played terribly at Tulane, a performance that left Scott baffled.
“We coached bad, and we played bad,” Scott said. “I was confident with how our guys prepared and practiced. We took the lead on the first drive, and that went as expected. Then they scored on a long run. We threw an interception and they scored again. That was like a tide you could not turn. We’re not at a place as a program where we’ve been able to overcome that.”
USF will look for a spark from true freshman quarterback Timmy McClain, who has been electrifying at times this season but struggled on Saturday. He finished 15 of 27 for 132 yards and was sacked five times before giving way to backup Cade Fortin in the second half.
“He was one of a hundred people who had a bad day (at Tulane),” Scott said. “He has come back to work with a lot of focus and energy. I think he’s going to respond really well.”
McClain, who USF plucked from Sanford Seminole in UCF’s backyard, had the offense clicking in his previous four starts (he missed the ECU game with an injury), when the Bulls averaged 33.8 points a game, including 28 points against No. 2 Cincinnati and 42 against No. 20 Houston.
UCF counters with a strong offense of its own, though not quite as strong as before it lost quarterback Dillon Gabriel to a broken bone in his shoulder in Week 3.
Freshman Mikey Keene has improved as the season has progressed. In nine games, he has completed 145 of 224 passes for 1,471 yards and 15 touchdowns with six interceptions.
Like the Bulls, the Knights feature a running game that involves a host of backs, led by Johnny Richardson, who has 599 yards on 93 carries. Isaiah Bowser was injured in a 14-10 victory over Tulane and hasn’t had a carry the past two games. Before he went down, he had 548 yards and seven touchdowns on 124 carries.
Despite losing nine key starters for considerable amounts of time on both sides of the ball, UCF ranks third in the AAC on defense, allowing an average of 373.9 yards a game and giving up less than 300 in five victories.
Of course, this is the “War on I-4″ when both teams bring everything they have, and unpredictable things can happen.
Though it struggled through a one-win season a year ago, USF battled UCF to the end before falling 58-46 in a game in which the teams combined for 1,223 yards.
“We have responded pretty well to adversity most of this season,” Scott said, “and I’m confident we’ll do it again.”
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