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USF's biggest weakness to tackle? That would be tackling

FSU’s Dalvin Cook torches USF for 267 yards rushing, 62 receiving and two TDs in September.
FSU’s Dalvin Cook torches USF for 267 yards rushing, 62 receiving and two TDs in September.
Published Nov. 18, 2016

TAMPA — Their responses during separate interview sessions featured neither hemming nor hawing, not a trace of hitch or hesitation.

When USF football coach Willie Taggart and striker Khalid McGee were asked to pinpoint the maligned defense's most glaring deficiency, both responded candidly — and quickly.

"Tackling."

That was Tuesday. Backpedal roughly seven weeks, to Taggart's news conference immediately after the Florida State debacle, and the connective tissue between that postmortem and Tuesday's presser is easy to detect.

"Didn't play very well fundamentally, did a … poor job tackling once again," Taggart said after the 55-35 loss to the Seminoles. "It was just a matter of tackling and wrapping guys up, and putting guys in the right position so they can make the plays that they need to make. And we didn't do that."

Ten games into an otherwise historic season, the Bulls haven't been able to wrap their arms around their greatest malady. While quarterback Quinton Flowers and Co. keep flourishing, the defense keeps floundering.

It has surrendered 133 points in its past three games, two more than the Bulls' record-shattering offense has scored in that same span. It enters Saturday night's game at SMU ranked 87th nationally in scoring defense (31.4 ppg), 108th against the run (224.4 ypg) and 118th in total defense (480.5 ypg).

Amid it all, Taggart's refrain has gone unaltered.

"We have guys in position and we miss tackles, and that just can't happen. That's a want-to. You've got to want to tackle," he said.

"You've got to understand that it's going to hurt a little bit and tackling and holding on and waiting for my teammates to come help me. But when it's you and that guy one-on-one, that's no excuse. That's your job is to tackle.

"So that would be the biggest thing is tackling, and with tackling a lot of other things come with it. You've got to be in good position to tackle, and you've got to read your keys so you can be in position to make a good tackle."

Observers would argue those "other things" represent the root of the problem. Depending on whom you ask, the issue is gap discipline, the ability to remain in gaps, the scheme, the coordinating or a blend of all those shortcomings.

Whatever the affliction, it has persisted the better part of two months. The defense provided fans a flicker of hope in a 42-27 romp of Connecticut, the only team to run for fewer than 100 yards against the Bulls, but it was temporary.

Six nights later, the defense was shredded for 319 rushing yards in a 46-30 loss at Temple.

Now, with three games (and possibly four) remaining, fans are left to wonder if they will have to settle for the status woe from here on. Can things be rectified at this stage, or will USF's best defense be its Maddenesque offense that simply outscores people?

"It's going to get corrected," McGee said.

"Every day (in practice) we're going to tackle," beleaguered first-year coordinator Raymond Woodie said.

"Just like catching a ball, you've got to look it in. Just like tackling, your eyes have got to be on the approach of where you have to tackle and then wrap up and run your feet. So it's a lot of the little things of it, we have to go back and keep working to fix those problems."

Hasn't been a quick fix so far.

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