Bulls' success rests in defense's grasp

Forcing turnovers has been crucial for USF, especially in Friday's win.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

TAMPA - With apologies to the Mohawk haircuts that several USF players proudly sported Friday night, the most impressive makeover in the Bulls' upsets of ranked Auburn and West Virginia teams this month has been the ballhawks playing defense.

In four games, the Bulls have forced 17 turnovers, including 11 against the Tigers and Mountaineers. They're on pace to obliterate the school record of 36, set in 2002, and more than double last year's total of 25 turnovers.

The difference? Great hands on defense, thanks to a renewed priority on pass-catching skills in practice.

"We do a lot of ball drills," safeties coach Troy Douglas said. "Basically, the DBs and linebackers are doing the same stuff the receivers do. It's helped us tremendously. Ben Moffitt has three interceptions in two games, and he didn't have any for three years. It's really helping us that we're catching a lot of balls in practice."

At the start of practice, when much of the team is focusing on special-teams work, the remaining linebackers and defensive backs work with Douglas. He throws passes high and low while they run straight at him, passes just as they turn around, in every scenario they might find an errant pass in a game.

"It makes a lot of difference," said safety Nate Allen, who had his third interception Friday and a key fumble recovery. "We'll have ball-drill periods, and it's a big thing. If you drop passes, they may not come back, so that's what we think about when we're making a catch."

Entering Saturday's play, the only team in the nation to force more turnovers was Cincinnati, with 19. This week's opponent, Florida Atlantic, passed USF Saturday by forcing two at Kentucky to increase its total to 16.

But if there has been one thing as frustratingly consistent for USF as the defense's knack for forcing turnovers, it has been the offense's trend of completely squandering those opportunities.

Against Auburn, USF forced five turnovers and had zero points to show for it, but some of that could be traced to four missed field goals. In Friday's 21-13 upset of No.5 West Virginia, there wasn't even that excuse: Moffitt took his first interception in for a touchdown, but the next five turnovers were converted into zero points by USF's offense.

Five drives after West Virginia turnovers netted a total of 37 yards of offense, with two interceptions and three punts. When the defense stopped the Mountaineers on fourth down in USF territory, all that set up was a Bulls fumble, putting the defense back on the field less than two minutes later.

USF entered the game with the Big East's second-worst red-zone offense, gaining nine touchdowns in 18 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. On Friday, the Bulls could barely reach the red zone, running one play - Jamar Taylor's 19-yard touchdown run - inside the West Virginia 23.

"We knew we were going to struggle," offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said. "We were out of our element, having to huddle. We had some great opportunities in the first half. We didn't have trouble finding ways to move the ball, we just fumbled and threw interceptions."

After four first-half turnovers, USF had a statement drive to open the second half, driving 74 yards, largely on Taylor and Matt Grothe's running, and getting Taylor's touchdown run. On the remaining five drives, however, USF totaled 15 yards of offense, allowing West Virginia a chance to drive for a tying score in the closing minutes.

"We just bogged down," Gregory said. "We had a lot of yards throwing last year on a lot of short stuff, just dinks, like they try to throw. They were not letting us throw that tonight. They were going to see if we could throw the ball down the field, and we struggled."

The Bulls have games against FAU and Central Florida to get their offense back in synch before another pivotal Big East showdown Oct.18 at Rutgers.

Up next

USF at FAU, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU.