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.
Bulls sticking with Jordan McCloud as starting QB
After two less than stellar offensive performances by the Bulls to start the season, USF head coach Charlie Strong and OC Kerwin Bell decided to switch things up for week 3. Just two hours before game time, the team learned that Jordan McCloud would be the starting quarterback against South Carolina state.
In fact, the decision was made so last minute that the video board in Raymond James Stadium still showed Blake Barnett as starter.
And it turned out to be a good decision.
The Bulls pulled away with their first win of the season in a 55-16 domination over the Bulldogs.
And it’s looking like they Bulls are going to try to build a win streak by keeping McCloud under center next week.
Regarding how Blake Barnett took the news that McCloud would be starting, Strong said: "Blake is a professional and he understands. He was good with it." @USFFootball
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) September 16, 2019
McCloud’s starting quarterback career started off a bit shaky. In his first snap, he tossed an incomplete pass intended for sophomore slot receiver Johnny Ford for a loss of 3 yards. The Bulls lost 12 yards in its first two drives with three incomplete passes and a sack.
However, he settled down on the next drive and led the offense for a gain of 64 yards, complete with a 42-yard touchdown pass to Ford. McCloud finished the game throwing for 217 yards with three touchdowns, and rushing for 56 yards. Most importantly, he proved to be shiftier behind a spotty O-Line, which allowed him to complete more plays than Blake Barnett has this season.
The redshirt freshman is a Tampa native who as senior in high school completed 160 of 295 passes for 2,426 yards and 26 touchdowns. He originally played at Sickles High School in 2017, but transferred to powerhouse 7A State title contender, Plant High. That’s where he had a 12-2 record, district and regional titles, and a trip to the state semifinals in 2018.
While it’s likely that Barnett would’ve put up similar numbers against South Carolina State, his most recent loss against Georgia Tech last weekend marked an 8 game losing streak for South Florida, and there was something to be said for switching things up and trying out McCloud.
He was able to spark USF, where Barnett clearly has not been able to since last October.
Coach Strong knows he needs to capitalize on this momentum, before this season becomes his last in Tampa.
Bulls OC Bell takes responsibility for shut out against Wisconsin
In Friday night’s opener against Big Ten perennial contender Wisconsin, the Bulls had suffered their worst loss in program history and left fans wondering what has caused such a downward spiral in the program over the last year and a half? And in a 49-0 loss, its hard to tell which side of the ball is a bigger struggle for the South Florida program?
While both looked alarmingly bad, the lack of offense was the ultimate reasoning behind the shut out, which led coordinator Kerwin Bell to taking full responsibility when speaking to the media on Wednesday.
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) September 4, 2019
“I’m the OC so I take all the blame, that’s all on my shoulders,” said Bell. “I’ve been in that position before, I’ve been shut out before, it didn’t feel good and surely last Friday night didn’t also. I was very disappointed in our performance. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Bell offered somewhat of an explanation as to why the team came out looking so ill-prepared and resembling every bit the team that lost their final six games last season. He said it’s the style of offense he’s introducing and that it takes time to get a team fully acclimated to it, which is not a new feat for him.
“This system is a little bit different than what everybody runs in college football, it’s more of a pro style. A lot of thinking, a lot of going through progressions and receivers changing their route on the run,” he added, “It takes a little bit of time and I’ve incorporated this thing 3 or 4 times now in new systems and we’ll be able to handle it. We’ll get up to speed, we just need some success with it.”
Bell also touched on the absence of USFs star slot receiver Johnny Ford. While there’s been no explanation to why he sat out of last weekends game, the Bulls play-caller did say that having him back will free up the rest of the offense in a major way.
“Johnny missing the game was big for us. We had a lot stuff on him to handle some of their man coverages. He’s a great man beater for us. With him being out it really put a lot of extra emphasis on other guys and he really frees up the team because he’s got so much ability running and catching the football.”
Bell, as head coach, led Valdosta State to an unbeaten season this past year and the Division II national championship. His offense at Valdosta led the nation in scoring (52.0 ppg), ranked second in first downs (341) and was fourth in total offense (523.9 ypg), red-zone offense (.901) and pass efficiency (167.37).
He has been around the block, coaching at various levels of college ball plus the CFL and high school. In addition to his many stops along the way as a coach, he also carved out a professional playing career which lasted over a decade.
Although he may have a history of offensive success, he’ll have a short timeline to start seeing success under head coach Charlie Strong or it may be a foregone conclusion before USF ever begins American Conference play, that this will be Strong’s final year and would likely Bells, as well.
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