|Defense has No. 18 USF headed in right direction|
After sliding from No. 19 in the preseason poll to No. 21 over a three-week span, South Florida is inching back in the right direction.
The No. 18 Bulls (4-0, 1-0 American Athletic Conference) performed better recently, and they will try to keep their momentum Saturday when they play at East Carolina (1-3, 1-0 AAC).
Not that USF coach Charlie Strong is spending a lot of time speaking to his players about rankings.
"I never say anything about it," Strong said. "The only thing I talk to them about it is that it's really hard to get to the top, but it's very easy to fall.
"It's really hard to get there. You've got to work, and it's about your focus and preparation, all about working to get to the top. But it's very easy to fall. So we don't talk about the polls."
Still, it is an encouraging indication that the Bulls are headed back in the right direction in their quest to grab a spot in a New Year's Six bowl. They are the highest-ranked team among the Group of Five conferences, a distinction that would earn the Jan. 1 berth at season's end.
San Diego State is sitting one spot behind at No. 19 and has impressive wins over Arizona State and Stanford to make a case when the ratings that matter, from the College Football Playoff selection committee, come out late next month.
Despite the 90 points the Bulls have put up the past two games, defense has been critical to their unbeaten start.
A veteran unit has the Bulls ranked No. 13 nationally in total defense after holding their first four opponents to an average of 263.8 yards a game. USF is No. 1 in interceptions (12) and turnover margin (plus-10) after picking off four passes and recovering two fumbles in a 43-7 rout of Temple last week.
"On defense, I think the word that comes to mind is experience," East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery said of the Bulls. "They only have one player on their defense that will be a second-year player. Everybody else has either been there three, four or five years. That's very important.
"The other thing about their defense is that at every level I feel they have an impact player. In the defensive front, Deadrin Senat; at linebacker, Auggie (Sanchez); and then one of my favorite players to watch play the game in their secondary, Deatrick Nichols.
"Last year they played him at corner; this year they can play him at corner, nickel and safety. If you throw the ball to him, he's going to catch it and make a play with it. But he is so run-game sound, too -- a very, very good player."
The turnaround for the unit from last year, when the Bulls gave up an average of 482 yards nearly 32 points per game, has been dramatic. Those numbers from 2016 spurred the defensive players this fall.
"It was more about them wanting to send a message because of the way they played last season," Strong said. "It was more like the offense carried them and they didn't do their part. You have to play with a chip on your shoulder, especially on defense. You have to have that edge, and they had that edge."
Meanwhile, the offense has not been without its moments. The Bulls are rushing for 289 yards a game, No. 9 in the country, and quarterback Quinton Flowers is passing for 194 yards per game. Strong blames mistakes for the offense not living up to expectations.
"There's nothing wrong," he said, looking back at the win over Temple. "The other night we had four drops, four touchdowns that should have been touchdowns that were dropped balls. If you get those four scores, it's really a runaway."
These are the kind of issues that Montgomery would like to have at East Carolina. The Pirates snapped a three-game losing streak with a 41-38 win over Connecticut last Sunday, rushing for a season-high 170 yards but giving up 190 to the Huskies.
Quarterback Thomas Sirk, a transfer from Duke, passed for a career-high 426 yards as the Pirates built a 27-7 lead before the Huskies rallied for 24 second-half points.
"Offensively, there were a whole lot of things in that game that we could have done better," Montgomery said. "We could have executed at a higher level than we ever have executed in that game."