If Friday night’s opener against Big Ten perennial contender Wisconsin was supposed to indicate that USF had turned the chapter from a dismal finish to 2018, then coach Charlie Strong is in real trouble.
That’s because not only did the Bulls not snap out of it in front of a good home crowd on a national television stage, but they looked ill-prepared and every bit the team that lost their final six games a year ago.
Yes, for all the talk that the new 2019 version of the Bulls, in Strong’s third season, would throw haymakers with the Badgers, it turns out that USF was knocked out in the figurative first round of this game.
By the time Wisconsin was done pummeling USF, the Bulls had suffered their worst loss in program history and left Strong standing at a podium around midnight trying to explain things.
Especially, he looked blankly, trying to explain how his team could be beaten 49 – 0 after pointing to their opening battle for the last six weeks:
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) August 31, 2019
Wisconsin and their Heisman Trophy candidate running back, Jonathan Taylor, were as advertised. He was in the end zone before you could spell “Bucky Badger” to make it 7-0 early. However, it’s what didn’t happen after that for the Bulls, with a veteran quarterback in Blake Barnett, that has to dismay Green and Gold fans on Saturday morning.
USF punted on each of their first two possessions, but then Barnett was hit as he threw under pressure deep in his own territory and when Badgers lineman Matt Henningsen caught the ball in mid-air and ran it in, it was a stunning 14 – 0 start.
Still, USF could have been in the game, but under new offensive coordinator and former Gator quarterback great Kerwin Bell, they mustered absolutely nothing the rest of the first half and fell further behind.
The final tally sheet for USF’s six first-half possessions: punt, punt, interception touchdown, punt, interception and punt.
When Taylor caught a 12-yard pass from quarterback Jack Coan and scampered in the end zone with just :02 remaining, it was now 28-0 and essentially game over.
Sadly, USF showed nothing out of the locker room, punted on their first two possessions and then fumbled on their third. That’s when, Raymond James Stadium emptied out except for the Wisconsin fans that had made the trip South.
Clearly the honeymoon is over after Strong showed up with Willie Taggart’s players, including great QB Quinton Flowers and had a 10-win season winning a bowl game in 2017.
And, even with all of his struggles at Texas, he never lost a game 49 – 0.
Yes, Wisconsin is talented and came to play, but no USF obviously wasn’t ready and that’s on Strong and his staff.
So there will be plenty of outcry coming off of Labor Day weekend about Strong and his job status. They will play at Georgia Tech next Saturday, which has a new coach and was blown out by Clemson to start the season. And, the Bulls defeated the Jackets in a wild 49-38 game a year ago.
So, if the Bulls are not better, or at least competitive with the Yellow Jackets, it may be a foregone conclusion before USF ever begins American Conference play, that this will be Strong’s final year.
And, anyone that wants to argue with that, should put in the tape and watch how poorly his recruits and his coaches performed Friday night, when they had everything pointing to a huge game at home for months.
Lack of offensive punch Charlie Strong-USF undoing
The South Florida Bulls played very hard for Charlie Strong on Thursday night against Temple. Facing the one team to beat the Memphis Tigers this season, the Bulls stood up to the folks from Philadelphia.
Strong’s defense allowed only 10 points to the Temple offense. Strong’s defense hasn’t always held tough this season. Wisconsin, Navy and SMU all overwhelmed USF. However, one of the reasons the 2019 USF defense hasn’t been perfect is that it received very little help from the offense in a majority of the Bulls’ games.
If you look at the overall points-per-game average against FBS opponents, it doesn’t seem that bad on the surface: 20 points per game. No, that’s not great by any means – not even good – but 20 points would have been enough to beat Temple on Thursday. USF’s offense didn’t come close.
Scoring 20 points against Navy might have applied more scoreboard pressure on the Midshipmen’s offense. Instead, Navy cruised, 35-3, knowing it didn’t have to take risks in the second half.
A 20-point showing from coordinator Kerwin Bell’s offense would have been enough to beat Georgia Tech in September. A 20-point showing in a few games would have USF on track to play in a bowl game. We wouldn’t be discussing Charlie Strong’s job security, if USF’s offense could be more consistent – not spectacular, not even good, but merely tolerable.
The Temple 17-7 loss – despite a valiant effort from Strong’s defense – brought up a key point about that misleading points-per-game average against FBS teams. (We’re not counting the 55 points USF scored against South Carolina State of the FCS.)
USF’s 20-points-per-game average is based on two games: a 48-point explosion against a terrible UConn team, and a 45-point outburst against East Carolina, which was USF’s best overall performance of the 2019 season. Those two games produced a combined 93 points.
The other six USF games versus FBS teams this year created 68 points.
You can do the quick math and realize that in six of USF’s eight FBS games this season, the Bulls’ offense has averaged 11.3 points per game. That is a disaster.
What is Charlie Strong’s ultimate weakness as a head coach, a weakness which has USF in line to go 4-8 this season (given a closing stretch of Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF, all likely losses for a team which is currently 4-5)? It is very simple: This defensive mastermind has not been able to surround himself with top-tier offensive coordinators.
When the story of Charlie Strong’s head coaching career is written, it will begin with the bottom-line point that while Charlie did well at Louisville – which gave his career forward momentum and the chance to coach at Texas – his success at UL was built on Teddy Bridgewater being an amazing college football player.
This doesn’t mean Charlie doesn’t deserve credit for building Louisville back into a nationally relevant program after Steve Kragthorpe failed to maintain what Bobby Petrino left him roughly a decade ago. Charlie deserves that credit. However, it definitely wasn’t offensive coordinator Shawn Watson who made UL’s offense go. It was Teddy.
That reality flows into the rest of Strong’s head coaching career.
Strong took Watson with him to Texas. It very quickly became apparent that Watson was in over his head, and that Teddy made Watson, not the other way around. Strong flailed and scrambled in the attempt to find the right offensive coordinator at Texas. He eventually begged and pleaded with Sterlin Gilbert to join him, when Texas administrators pressured Strong to make changes on his offensive staff.
Gilbert did improve the Texas offense to a degree, but not enough to save Charlie’s job in Austin. Nevertheless, when Strong went to USF, he took Gilbert with him. His new offensive coordinator had earned that much.
The one year at USF which took flight under Strong was the first year. In 2017, the Bulls were AAC contenders because of a loaded offense which made Strong’s life easier. Once again, though, the reality was that the quarterback carried the offense and made the coordinator look good. It wasn’t a case of the coordinator tapping into a quarterback’s previously unlocked talent.
Quinton Flowers carried Gilbert and the USF offense that season. How do we know this? Because Gilbert floundered without Flowers the next year in 2018 Gilbert performed horribly in the late-season rivalry game against UCF, eliciting legitimate fan outrage and creating the need for a new hire.
Kerwin Bell was that hire. He had paid his dues in the profession. He did deserve a chance. Yet, Bell has plainly not made the grade this season.
We arrive at the sad but true realization that Charlie Strong has not picked high-level offensive coordinators. Head coaches – especially ones who have backgrounds as defensive coaches – have to get that hire right, more than any other hire with the possible exception of the strength and conditioning coach.
Charlie Strong’s USF tenure, and quite possibly his head coaching career, have run their course because of an inability to pick elite offensive coordinators. Teddy Bridgewater at Louisville and Quinton Flowers at USF carried Strong and his offensive coordinators. There has never been a season in which an offensive coordinator has made a defining and positive difference for one of Charlie Strong’s teams.
Get ready for another coaching search at a Florida-based FBS program.
Bulls host Temple in key battle for post-season hopes
A critical game for the USF Bulls potential postseason hopes will get underway Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium and on national TV.
— USF Football (@USFFootball) November 7, 2019
The Bulls come off of an easy 45 – 20 win at East Carolina for their third victory in the last four games and their run game is a big reason why.
Senor and former Gator transfer Jordan Cronkrite is once again putting together tremendous numbers, recently. This as, he has run for over 100 yards in all three of those wins. In fact, Cronkrite has tallied 75 or more yards and 4.5 yards or better average in all of the Bulls last four games.
This comes on the heels of their first four games of the year, when Cronkrite didn’t have more than 30 yards rushing in any of them and USF went 1 – 3. In fairness, Cronkite is healthier now than he was in the beginning of the season and is showing explosiveness between the tackles.
Offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell wants to utilize the run to help offset the shaky quarterback play that the Bulls have had for much of the year. Part of that is freshman, Jordan McCloud’s injuries that included: a wrist and shoulder problem earlier in the season. Then he had an ankle injury which took him out of the second half of the East Carolina game.
Meanwhile for Temple, they come in at 5 – 3 but off back-to-back blowout losses at SMU and at home to UCF. The Knights in particular torched them for 63 points in their last game. However, Owls quarterback Anthony Russo has been solid with 16 touchdowns and just six interceptions on the season.
Temple does have wins out of the conference against in Maryland and Georgia Tech in September and also upset Memphis back in October for the Tigers only loss of the season.
Back to the Bulls. They need a victory tonight to get to five wins before the gauntlet of playing Cincinnati Memphis and at UCF to finish their season. A potential bowl game seemed far, far away when USF and coach Charlie Strong was blown out early by Wisconsin and SMU.
However, give the Bulls credit, they’ve played hard and won some games to make themselves relevant. Still, those are arguably the three best teams in the American Conference, right now, to end the season after tonight. And, they all will all be looking to win to get into the championship game.
Again, time for USF to take care of business.
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