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Charlie Strong: ‘We’ve got to win on first down’

The Bulls have totaled only 20 points in the first half of their last two games
East Carolina  linebacker Bruce Bivens (38) tackles USF  running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) during the first half of the game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, September 22, 2018. (OCTAVIO JONES  | Times)
East Carolina linebacker Bruce Bivens (38) tackles USF running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) during the first half of the game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Saturday, September 22, 2018. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published Oct. 3, 2018

The way Charlie Strong sees it, USF will emerge from its prolonged first-half funk only when it develops some first-down consistency.

A little first-down variety may help too.

"We have to get into the flow of the game," Strong said Monday, "and we have to be balanced on offense with run and pass."

A look at the past two contests, during which USF has totaled 20 first-half points, shows a bit of an imbalance.

The Bulls ran 10 consecutive times on first down at Illinois, and opted for runs on 17 of 22 first-down situations in the opening half, when it managed only seven points. They showed a bit more diversity in the second half (12 runs, eight passes), but 11 of those plays netted 3 or fewer yards.

Similarly, USF opted for 12 runs and eight passes on first down against East Carolina, but 13 of those plays went for 3 or fewer yards. Not surprisingly, the Bulls (4-0) enter Saturday's game at Division I-A independent UMass with 96 total first downs, tied for 74th nationally.

"The key thing, more than anything with both sides of the ball is, we've got to win on first down," Strong said. "And we're not winning on first down right now."

FAB FOUR: With a victory Saturday at UMass, the Bulls' three-plus-season stretch of success will graduate from astounding to unprecedented.

A triumph against the Minutemen would be USF's 34th since the start of the 2015 season, matching the best four-season stretch in program history. Coach Jim Leavitt's teams went 34-18 (.654 win percentage) from 2006-09.

Since the beginning of '15, the Bulls are 33-9 (.786). They're 25-4 since the start of the '16 season.

"It's bigger than the football team, it's big for this university," said senior nickel back Ronnie Hoggins, who signed with USF in the wake of a 4-8 season in February 2015. "So it's big for this USF community and what we're doing here."

INJURY UPDATE: Strong said on Monday that TE Mitch Wilcox, who exited in the first half of the East Carolina game with an unspecified injury, has returned to practice and should be ready to play at UMass.

The tailback situation isn't quite as clear. Four ball carries — Trevon Sands, Duran Bell, Elijah Mack and walk-on Dave Small — missed the ECU game.

"Right now with Bell and with Mack, we're still day to day with them, but the rest of the guys, we should be able to have them back and ready to go," Strong said.

Related: USF-UMass game to air on local TV

ODDS AND ENDS: The Bulls are averaging 40.6 points in their last 13 games away from Tampa. … UMass enters this contest ranked 99th nationally in rushing offense (139.5 ypg); USF is 122nd in run defense (244.8). … With four catches Saturday, senior WR Tyre McCants (87 career receptions) moves into the program's career top 10 in that category.

AUDIBLE: "He gets open, that's what he does well. He's fast, he's quick, he gets in and out of his breaks, he runs good routes. He does everything. He's a pretty good receiver, and that's why he's putting up the numbers he's putting up right now." — Hoggins, when asked what UMass WR Andy Isabella (41 receptions, 648 yards, seven touchdowns) does well