|No. 21 South Florida starts conference Temple|
TAMPA, Fla. -- No. 21 South Florida is off to a 3-0 start, and its pursuit of a first-ever conference title begins Thursday night as it hosts Temple.
The Bulls have a short week for the second game in a row, having played Illinois on Friday night, when it pulled away to an easy 47-23 victory, with 680 yards of total offense.
"They have tremendous athletes across the board -- a big, physical offensive line and a dynamic quarterback who can hurt you with his arm and hurt you with his legs," Temple coach Geoff Collins said Monday. "They're a complete offense."
That quarterback is Quinton Flowers, who threw for four touchdowns and ran for another score against Illinois. The Bulls had three 100-yard rushers in that game, and they'll face a Temple defense that allowed three 100-yard rushers in a 49-16 loss to Notre Dame in its season opener.
Temple (2-1) handed USF one of its two losses last season, rushing for 319 yards in a 46-30 win that kept the Bulls from playing for a conference title. Much of the improvement expected in Charlie Strong's first season in Tampa is on the defensive side, where a veteran group is hoping to change its identity.
"They've heard a lot about the defense and what they didn't do," Strong said Monday. "Now they're working hard to prove to everyone what they can do."
The Bulls forced three turnovers from Illinois, but it won't be easy against Temple quarterback Logan Marchi, who has yet to throw an interception in three games, passing for 767 yards and five touchdowns.
Temple's wins haven't come easy. The Owls saw a 13-0 lead disappear against FCS program Villanova, needing a late field goal to escape with a 16-13 win. They, they stayed close in a 29-21 win against an 0-4 Massachusetts team.
USF had struggled before its breakout game Friday, trailing San Jose State 16-0 before waking up for a 42-22 season-opening win; the Bulls also were tied with FCS Stony Brook in the fourth quarter before pulling out a 31-17 victory.
The Bulls' three-headed rushing attack includes Flowers, who has rushed for 243 yards to go with his 678 passing yards and eight touchdown passes. At running back, Darius Tice has 256 yards and D'Ernest Johnson has 215, the two of them working together to offset the loss of Marlon Mack, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts.
Temple's leading rusher has just 177 yards, but that's Ryquell Armstead, who went 210 yards in last year's Temple win against the Bulls.
USF's first goal is to play for a conference championship -- something the Bulls have never done in their 20-year history -- but every win also matters as they try to make a case to get into a New Year's Big Six bowl as the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences. USF's overall strength of schedule doesn't figure to be good enough to be worthy of the four-team playoff, even if the Bulls go undefeated.
The Bulls had to postpone their game at Connecticut due to Hurricane Irma two weeks ago, and to make that game up, they gave up a nonconference game against Massachusetts as three games were reshuffled to fit the Huskies into their schedule. The priority was making sure every American Athletic Conference team played a full conference schedule so that a true champion was crowned in each division, and Temple is a key challenger to USF for that spot.
Strong has pushed his new team through some early adversity, and Thursday is a chance to build on last week's dominating win against Illinois.
Flowers showed much of the dual-threat playmaking ability that made him a star last season, dangerous whether he's throwing or running and presenting a real challenge to the Temple defense. He passed for 187 yards and ran for 90 against the Owls last season.
USF's remaining schedule has only three games against RPI top 50 teams. Temple is 36th, with Houston (32) and UCF (43) as the other top threats to an undefeated season for the Bulls. That makes Thursday one of the biggest remaining hurdles, plus a potential conference championship game.