What does USF need Friday night to beat Wisconsin? We will get to that question in a bit.
Let’s start this look at the Bulls’ game against the Badgers by noting the Florida angles and intersections which form the backdrop to this intriguing Week 1 clash.
Because this game is on a Friday, it won’t compete with the first full-service Saturday of the 2019 college football season. One of the games which will be played on Saturday involves another Florida school, the Florida State Seminoles, who will face Boise State in an anticipated intersectional encounter.
No Florida State player will be more interested in Wisconsin-South Florida than a man who transferred from Madison to Tallahassee… and did not get the starting quarterback job with the Seminoles.
Much as Ohio State quarterback Tate Martell transferred to a Florida school – the Miami Hurricanes – in the hope of becoming a starting quarterback, Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State in the hope of a fresh start. His departure from a Big Ten school also didn’t work out as planned. He and Martell could have an interesting conversation if the two ever had an occasion to discuss the directions of their collegiate careers.
Hornibrook can only wonder what his world might have looked like if he had stayed in Madison and taken the flight to Tampa to face USF. Jack Coan will be Wisconsin’s signal-caller. He will try to stabilize the Badger program after Hornibrook’s rough 2018 season led to a rare dip in form for the usually consistent Badgers.
Wisconsin – over the larger arc of its 21st-century history – has been known for its ability to crank out at least nine wins per season, as though it owns a manufacturing process other industry competitors can’t seem to figure out.
No matter the coach, no matter the quarterback, Wisconsin generally manages to win at least nine games. The Badgers had won at least nine games in 12 of 14 seasons from 2004 through 2017. Their 8-5 season in 2018 was a minor shock and a genuine failure when measured against the standards Wisconsin has established.
In the 2017 season, a Florida school – Miami – faced Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl. Hornibrook was there to lead the Badgers to a New Year’s Six bowl victory and a 13-1 season, the best in terms of wins and losses in UW history. Hornibrook was never a dazzling quarterback, but he made the clutch throw on third and six. He came up with the right play at the right time.
In 2018, he lost that knack, and since his ceiling was never very high, his floor became very low. Wisconsin took a hard fall… and even though it beat Miami again in a bowl game, this bowl had a very different feel.
Wisconsin defeated the Hurricanes in the cold of New York in late December at the Pinstripe Bowl. Even though Miami was lost and adrift at the end of the Mark Richt era, one had to wonder if this Wisconsin team – nothing like the confident bunch which had won the Orange Bowl a year earlier – would have won on Miami’s turf.
Now we get to wonder about Wisconsin again. The Badgers won’t be playing a Florida-based school as a 12-1 powerhouse in full command of its skills (which they did in 2017). They won’t be playing a Florida-based school in Yankee Stadium just before New Year’s Day (as they did in 2018).
The Badgers now come to the Sunshine State in late August. Wisconsin will play in uncomfortable weather, not its opponent. South Florida won’t have to play in brutal cold. Its opponent will.
Can the man who replaced Alex Hornibrook – Florida State’s backup quarterback – make Wisconsin the team it was in 2017, or will the Badgers stumble through 2019 much as they did in 2018?
This is where we turn to the Bulls, and how they are going to win.
Let’s be honest: Wisconsin has the pedigree, the status, the stature. South Florida flirted with greatness in the 2007 college football season, when it was briefly No. 2 in the nation, but Wisconsin has undeniably established itself as a national power with its body of work over the past 15 years.
USF is intent on winning this game, but Wisconsin expects to win this game. USF is hoping to move upward in the AAC East standings and challenge both UCF and Cincinnati, but the Bulls appear to be third in the division in a best-case scenario. Wisconsin expects nothing less than a Big Ten West Division championship and a January bowl game.
How can USF win? This isn’t a pleasant or happy truth, but it IS the truth: Wisconsin needs to play poorly. South Florida can force Wisconsin to play poorly to an extent, but the Badgers have more heft, more power, in the trenches and at linebacker. They will need to be off their game if South Florida is to have a real chance.
The key question becomes: If Wisconsin opens the door, can USF step through the portal?
Blake Barnett – you will remember – very briefly played in Alabama’s season-opening win over USC in 2016. He was replaced by Jalen Hurts. He never again became the leader of the Alabama offense, but he tasted what a huge Week 1 game felt like.
Three years later, Barnett, who played well, especially early, in year one in Tampa, gets another chance to stand in the Week 1 spotlight against an elite program. If Wisconsin is ragged and rusty enough to give USF a genuine opening, Barnett has to be ready to pounce.
His new offensive coordinator this year? Yet one more Florida angle emerges in this game.
Kerwin Bell quarterbacked the Florida Gators in the mid-1980s. He is a beloved Gator who coached for many years in the state of Florida, both in high school and the lower (non-FBS) rungs of college football.
USF could no longer retain former offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, whom head coach Charlie Strong brought with him to Tampa after Strong was fired at Texas. Gilbert took the head coaching job at McNeese State.
Strong turned to Bell to take Barnett – and the offense – to the next level.
A first – and very big – test arrives this Friday, in a game bursting with Florida football flavor.
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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