tampabay.com

USF challenge: wrap up Rutgers

The Bulls face their biggest test in Ray Rice, who averages 151 rushing yards for the 4-0 Scarlet Knights.

By GREG AUMAN
Published September 29, 2006


TAMPA - As a general practice, USF coach Jim Leavitt will build up nearly any opponent to be a dangerous threat in the days before a game.

It wasn't as much work to pull it off this week.

The Bulls open their second Big East season on ESPN2 tonight, playing host to No. 23 Rutgers in a game that will set the tone for both teams for the next two months.

To beat Rutgers, the Bulls have to find a way to contain running back Ray Rice, who ranks in college football's top five in rushing yards and touchdowns.

"We haven't faced a running game like this one," Leavitt said. "This one's good. I mean, real good. They know what they're doing. This one's a real test, a great challenge for our defense."

Rice, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound sophomore, comes in averaging 151 yards per game, which is more than the Bulls have allowed in any of their first four games.

Rice also has scored nine touchdowns in leading Rutgers to a 4-0 start and its first national ranking in 30 years. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in his past six games, but you don't have to remind the Bulls.

Last year in New Jersey, USF got off to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, then hung on as Rice rushed for 158 yards to pull the Scarlet Knights within six points for much of the fourth quarter.

"He didn't have any problems running against us last year, did he?" said Leavitt, whose team is 1-5 since 2005 when an opposing player rushes for 100 or more yards.

Just as Rice is the best back the Bulls have seen this season, USF is the top run defense Rice has faced this year. None of Rutgers' opponents are ranked higher than 89th in rush defense, while USF enters the game ranked 29th.

"I think everybody on our football team knows how good South Florida is," Knights coach Greg Schiano said. "South Florida beat us last year in our home stadium. We were coming off becoming bowl-eligible and we went out and didn't play very well for about two and a half quarters."

Rice isn't the only running threat Rutgers presents. The Knights are touting fullback Brian Leonard as a Heisman candidate, though he's taken a secondary role to Rice in the past month, totaling 116 yards.

"We'll try to focus on the one that has the ball," Leavitt said. "Which one has the ball? We'll try to see if we can hopefully figure that out."

The Bulls will focus their defense on stopping the run, challenging quarterback Mike Teel (two TDs, five INTs) to beat them.

"If we all run to the ball, get 11 hats to the ball every play, everything should be good," safety Jeremy Burnett said. "(Last year) they ran the ball on us a little bit. Hopefully, we can contain the run better, get turnovers and make them pass the ball more."

USF has experienced units at linebacker and defensive back, but a young defensive line remains a question mark. Junior defensive tackle Woody George said this week is an opportunity for the line to show how far it's come in the past month.

"We're coming along," George said. "They're a run team first, so it's real crucial for us to stop the run this week."

The key for USF's defense in last year's victory was forcing six turnovers, including two returned for touchdowns in the opening quarter.

As good as Rice was against the Bulls last season, USF outrushed Rutgers by 77 yards, thanks to Andre Hall's 168 yards and three touchdowns.

Hall's gone now, and USF has struggled to establish a consistent running game. But Schiano said the biggest difference he sees in USF a year later is at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Matt Grothe has made a promising start, passing for 843 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 279 yards and two scores.

"They are very different at the quarterback spot," Schiano said. "I think they have found their guy. This guy is a fiery leader, a very mobile guy who's tough to get on the ground. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but he throws the ball and gets it to the receivers."

Last year's Big East opener gave USF the biggest win in its history, a shocking 45-14 upset of then-No. 9 Louisville. Tonight brings another ranked, undefeated team and another chance for national exposure.

"We want to be Big East champions, and to do that you have to win all your games," said cornerback Trae Williams, who intercepted a Rutgers pass late in the fourth quarter to seal the win last year. "This is the first step toward doing that, and we recognize how big an opportunity this is."

USF vs. No. 23 Rutgers

When/WHERE: 8 tonight, Ray-mond James Stadium, Tampa

TV/RADIO: ESPN2; 970-AM

weather: High 86, low 70, rain chance zero percent.