TAMPA — On a warm day when the collective pulse of the USF defense was revived, perhaps the most glaring sign of resuscitation occurred early in the second quarter.
Facing fourth and 5 at midfield, Western Kentucky quarterback Austin Reed took a shotgun snap and lofted a high pass that seemed to hang in the air toward the left flat. Initially, no Bulls defender was near intended receiver Dalvin Smith, a scene far too familiar to Bulls fans who had watched their hapless secondary routinely get singed in 2022.
Suddenly, junior safety Logan Berryhill — relegated mostly to special-teams duty his first four years in the program — dashed from the center of the field, converging just in time to disrupt Smith and force an incompletion for a turnover on downs.
It was only one of 73 plays registered by the Bulls defense, a snapshot in a sprawling Game 1 album. But the qualities it conveyed — abandon, urgency, doggedness and pride — seemed to serve notice.
While the 2023 unit may remain far short of juggernaut, it’s not a joke, either. The punchline days have passed.
“You talk about that side of the ball, you’re trying to fix a culture that was last in the country (in 2022),” Bulls coach Alex Golesh said three days later.
“That’s all they’ve heard, that’s all they’ve seen, that’s all they’ve read, that’s all they hear. ... Talk about a guy like Logan Berryhill. Like, holy smokes. He’s never played meaningful snaps. That guy is like, special special.”
As a collective unit, the refurbished Bulls aren’t about to be anointed with the s-word after four quarters. One must show competence, then consistency, before even approaching “special.”
But in Saturday’s 41-24 loss at Conference USA favorite Western Kentucky, the Bulls looked like a team capable of splash plays, stoutness on third down and — most important — tackling.
All of which represented a quantum stride from 2022, when BYU receiver Puka Nacua went untouched on a jet sweep for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the first game.
“I was excited about the physicality. I was excited about the effort,” said Bulls first-year coordinator Todd Orlando, whose unit makes its home debut Saturday night against Florida A&M at Raymond James Stadium.
“I was proud of the fact that they went out there and, like, we didn’t sit there and take it. We came out and kind of threw the first punch and just kind of kept going from there.”
Dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense (516.6 yards per game) in 2022, the Bulls forced three-and-outs on three of the Hilltoppers’ first four possessions, tackling efficiently in space. Bent on trying to force Western Kentucky to be one-dimensional, they held the hosts to 129 rushing yards — 105.6 fewer than teams averaged against USF on the ground last year (234.6).
And while the Bulls allowed 5.6 yards per rushing attempt, the effort still represented a glaring improvement from 2022, when they allowed 6.1. Moreover, Western Kentucky finished only 6-for-16 (37.5%) on third down.
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Last year’s USF unit ranked 129th of 130 FBS teams in third-down defense (50.3%).
“I thought, defensively, we flew around,” Golesh said. “We made a ton of plays. We made enough plays through three-and-a-half quarters to go win the game. We didn’t make them at the very end, which is when you’ve got to make them. You’ve got to win the fourth quarter.”
Indeed, the 2023 Bulls remain a few light years from the Jim Leavitt era. The school’s five best scoring defenses, and six top defenses in terms of yards allowed per play, all were Leavitt units. By contrast, Orlando’s group failed to muster a pass rush, forced no turnovers and allowed the Hilltoppers to mount a critical 13-play, 6½-minute field-goal drive in the fourth quarter.
Orlando deferred some of the credit to the savvy of Reed — the FBS’ top passer in 2022 — but also noted some mild tentativeness by his fledgling group that he believes will dissipate over time.
“I want them to just relax and just cut it loose,” Orlando said. “I don’t want us to be the team that’s always like, a half-yard short on something. You’ve earned the right to fail. If you fail, we’ll learn from it and we’ll keep pushing forward. That’s part of learning how to win.”
And learning how to forge an identity that hearkens to the program’s heyday.
“The only thing I want — we talk about getting back to the old ways — is being tough and violent,” defensive line coach Kevin Patrick, an original Leavitt defensive assistant, said days before Saturday’s opener.
“That’s what we want to be. Not to be the George Selvies, the Aaron Lynches, Jason Pierre-Pauls. Let’s be the best version of ourselves and really getting back to how the culture was before. We would step across that line and play anybody and swing with anybody. That’s what we’ve got to get it back to.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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