South Florida Bulls @ Florida State Seminoles Preview: can the Noles avoid the Bulls' horns?

This is part 1.  Here is part 2:

For the first time ever, the South Florida Bulls will take on the Florida State Seminoles.  Gametime is Noon.  The game is on ESPNU.

I'm scared of this game.  Not because I think USF is good, but because I think the Seminoles are in a bad spot.  Riding high off their 54-28 win over #7 ranked BYU, FSU is banged up.  Really banged up.  They are without DT Moses McCray and DT Justin Mincey.  Their only healthy defensive tackles are undersized senior Kendrick Stewart, promising freshman Jacobbi McDaniel- who has a bum MCL, and the high on energy but low on effectiveness Budd Thacker.  Additionally, both rovers, senior Corey Mangum and freshman Nick Moody are banged up.  Additionally, FSU's lame duck defensive ends coach, Jody Allen, continues to hold a grudge and insists on starting the worst starter in my lifetime (both '85)- walk on defensive end Craig Yarborough

There are also some situational factors in this game.  USF has played the worst schedule in the country, and it is not close.  The Bulls faced two 1-AA teams and Western Kentucky, a team that either is or should still be a probational 1A team (easily the worst team in 1A).  So making a read on their current in-season performance is a bit tough.  I did watch their games, or what I could find of them, so I'll do my best. 

I was asked to describe my thoughts on this game, and in a sentence, I said that I thought FSU was a much better team than USF, but that I didn't like the matchup.  I just have a bad feeling about this game.


But is it more than a feeling?  Let's start with USF's offense against Florida State's defense.  Over the summer, I wrote this comprehensive preview of USF's offense.

The Bulls went 8-5 in 2008.  They were perfect in the non-conference, with wins over two terrible defensive teams in Kansas and NC State, and an overtime victory against UCF.  In the worst BCS conference, however, they were just 2-5, and their two wins came over UConn and Syracuse.  To say that USF feasted on bad teams would be an understatement.  Yet voters, who often see nothing but a team's record and not the competition they face, had the Bulls as high as #10 at one point.  They would lose 4 of 5 down the stretch to finish unranked.  This season, as I noted above, they are unranked and have played a terrible schedule.

The Bulls were just 4-5 against BCS conference teams and 2-4 against teams ranked inside the Fremeau Efficiency Index Top 40.  Put another way:

Wins S/ F+ Losses S/ F +
UT Martin NR Pittsburgh 17
@ UCF NR @ Louisville 74
KAN 33 @ Cincinatti 19
FIU NR Rutgers 24
NCST (w.o their QB) 47 @ WVU 49
Syracuse 90
UConn 26
Memphis NR

S/ F is a combination of S&P + and FEI, the two widely recognized advanced metrics for evaluating college football teams.  The quality of their opponents in wins was far less than that of their opponents in losses.

This year, the Bulls schedule around the 'Noles game looks like this:  

2009 schedule:
Sept. 5 Wofford
Sept. 12 @ Western Kentucky
Sept. 19 Charleston Southern
Sept. 26 @ Florida State
Oct. 3 @ Syracuse

The Bulls have a very easy schedule before facing Florida State.  They essentially play three 1-AA teams (W. Kentucky is a provisional 1A school, the worst team in 1A).  This can help and hurt a team.  Having a month of pre-season assures that the Bulls will be able to work out some kinks, and that they will be healthy (starters playing fewer minutes in blowouts means less opportunity for injury).  It can also hurt, however, because FSU will be the Bulls' first test of the season.  'Nole fans saw this phenomena last year when they lost to Wake Forest after opening the season with two 1AA cupcakes.  

Based on their talent an performance, the Bulls were probably a top 25 team last season, though they were too high early and probably too low late.  They did have three close losses in Big East play, and close wins or losses are a great indicator of a team being lucky or unlucky.

Last season, the Bulls Offense looked something like this:

  • Fremeau Efficiency Index: 48th
  • Varsity Numbers (aka BeyondTheBoxScore at, the brainchild of Bill Connelly) S&P+ (measure of ball movement and explosiveness):  21st (34th rushing, 16th passing)
  • Forget the fact that South Florida led the Big East in total offense and finished second in scoring. It did most of its damage against lesser opponents, while failing to score more than 20 points in the final five regular season games.
  • In conference play, the Bulls had the 6th best offense (of 8 Big East teams), with the 4th best ground game and the 5th best passing attack.  Only UConn and Syracuse were worse (though they were a lot worse).
  • USF had an unsustainably high success rate on passing downs (2nd and 8+, 3rd/4th and 5+)  As the article discusses, USF was really goot at converting 3rd and long, compared to their other talents.  That's just not realisticly sustainable.  What team is consistently better on 3rd and long than 3rd and 4?
  • USF averaged less than 350 yards and less than 5.4 yards per play in conference games.  (For reference, 400 yard games equal out to about 6.2 yards per play over 65 plays in an average game).  

The Bulls run a spread scheme under new Coordinator Mike Canales, featuring a heavy dose of the zone read game.  It's 4-wide, pretty much all the time.  They will go into trips as well, which gives FSU fits.  They force the opposing defense to account for the QB's legs.  Canales was the Bulls' passing game coordinator last year and stepped into the OC role after Greg Gregory took another job.  



Here's what I wrote about Grothe:

Matt Grothe has led the Bulls in rushing in each of the past three seasons.  He's also a big risk taker who often struggles to read defenses, possibly because of his 5'11" stature.  He's tossed up 42 picks over three years, while throwing 47 TD's.  He's been consistent in his erratic nature, throwing 14 INT's each year.  More troubling, however, for Bulls fans was the way he ended the Big East season:  Against Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers, UConn, and WVU, Grothe threw 11 Interceptions and just three touchdowns, while being sacked 13 times.  

There's more:  

Matt Grothe Games QB Rating Yards/ Attempt TD INT
All Games 13 136 7.7 18 14
v. Conference 7 119 7.1 7 12
v. Non-Conference 6 156 8.4 11 2
v. Winning 6 109 6.5 4 10
v. Non-Winning 7 162 8.8 14 4

4 TD 10 INT against Bowl teams?  That's not impressive, and really, none of Grothe's passing numbers stand out.  He is a dangerous runner, of course.    And FSU has been ripped by teams utilizing the mobile quarterback over the past two seasons, particularly out of the shotgun, as USF does.  In fact, Grothe had 117 rushes for 828 yards, which is 7.1 yards per carry.  Simply put, Grothe is a playmaker with his legs.  He runs the zone read play quite well and making him one-dimensional is a primary goal for any team facing USF.  

If he stays healthy, Grothe will surpass Pat White for the conference record in Total Offense, but I have to wonder how much of that record is due solely to playing time?  Almost any 4-year starter with mobility would have a shot at the record.  

So obviously I didn't think Grothe was that good.  He tore his ACL and his career is over. His backup is Redshirt Freshman B.J. Daniels, a highly recruited kid out of Tallahassee Florida.  FSU wanted him as an athlete, because they already had E.J. Manuel as their only QB in the recruiting class.  This kid has a great arm.  It is a total cannon.  But he's not entirely accurate and lacks touch.  Kinda one of those kids who rifles everything.  He is a physical beast.  USF calls him 6'1 or 6'2" in various media guides, but he's somewhere between 5'11" and 6'2".  About 215lbs.  Fast as heck.  USF's offense isn't particularly complicated, and I expect that it is about to get simpler, but it is the exact design of offense that makes Mickey Andrews look washed up and incompetent.  Daniels scares the heck out of me because he is a much better physical talent than Grothe, who I didn't think was all that good.  He reminds me of a combination of NC State's Russel Wilson, and Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli.  USF runs the zone read play as their base run play.  Here's the video:  

Here's a diagram:


  That's the one where the QB in the shotgun reads the backside defensive end.  The line blocks away from him.  If the end stays at home to keep the QB in check, the QB will hand the ball off because they have the numerical advantage.  If the end "crashes down", the QB will keep the ball.  As linked above, FSU does not do well against this at all.  This stuff is the number one weakness of FSU's defense.  By far.  And this defense is banged up, undisciplined, and unsurprisingly not well coached by a disinterested and fractured defensive coaching staff.  I would choose to run this against FSU even if I didn't have the personnel to do so.  That is exactly what Boston College did to beat FSU last season with their terrible offense.  

So how do you stop this?  FSU's defensive coaches have no idea.  Good defensive line play helps.  Someone must  win their one-on-one matchup.  Chris Brown of has some ideas here

Now, I know we rip on Craig Yarborough quite often.  The kid tries hard, but he is a bad player.  That said, his discipline could be somewhat of an asset in this game for the Noles.  In order to beat the zone read, a team must have a plan, and everyone must follow the plan.  I'm not talking about "everyone go out and make plays" stuff, that's not a plan.  Yarborough can help by simply following his assignment here, even if he doesn't physically do it all that well.  This is particularly important when he is the read defender on the backside.  In Chris Brown's piece linked above, in the 2nd photo, think of Yarborough as the "E" (end) crashing down, and Nigel Bradham as the scraping linebacker.  There's an opportunity here for Bradham to have a huge game here.

The zone read is difficult to stop.  FSU must have a good gameplan and must change up their looks.  I do not have much confidence in FSU to do that.  However, I do think FSU has some advantages here.  FSU's linebackers are very fast and better than most in coverage.  That will allow FSU to stay in a base defense or a nickel defense against USF's 4 wide receiver look.  Many teams are forced to use 6 defensive backs against USF's look, but because of FSU's linebackers, the Noles can use only 5 defensive backs.  Obviously when trying to stop the run, linebackers are better than defensive backs. 

Running Backs

This summer, I wrote:

Mike Ford is a special talent and a likely NFL back.  He was a Five-Star recruit coming out of high school but had terrible grades and had to go to through the preparatory school route.  Last season, Ford battled numerous injury issues and had a disappointing year.  In 2007, however, he was excellent.

2008 2007
Opponent Att Yards Avg. Opponent Att Yards Avg.
Tenn.-Martin 15 61 4.1 Elon 6 83 13.8
@ UCF Did Not Play @ 15 Auburn 21 74 3.5
Kansas 1 3 3.0 North Carolina 6 13 2.2
@ Florida Int'l 14 24 1.7 6 West Virginia 5 42 8.4
@ North Carolina St. 11 64 5.8 @ Fla. Atlantic Did Not Play
Pittsburgh 14 73 5.2 UCF 8 39 4.9
Syracuse 11 51 4.6 @ Rutgers 4 9 2.3
@ Louisville 5 13 2.6 @ Connecticut 7 27 3.9
@ 17 Cincinnati Did Not Play 17 Cincinnati 7 13 1.9
Rutgers 1 2 2.0 @ Syracuse 28 134 4.8
Connecticut 8 20 2.5 Louisville 24 140 5.8
@ 23 West Virginia 14 62 4.4 @ Pittsburgh 16 63 3.9
+ Memphis 8 34 4.3 + 23 Oregon 6 8 1.3
Totals 102 407 4.0 Totals 138 645 4.7

This year, he's apparently lost 20lbs, making him 6'2" 210 rather than the 230 he played at last season.  He is apparently quicker and now healthy.  You can bet that USF will not risk injuring him against their cupcake schedule before they play FSU.

Canales has been vocal about trying to throw the ball to the backs more often, but Ford has not shown great hands.  He may catch a few more now that he is at a better weight, but he's really not that type of back.

Mo Plancher represents another option to carry the ball.  At 5'9" and 200lbs, he has surprising quicks, gaining 330 yards on 69 carries last year.

Jamar Taylor is an ex fullback type who tried to carry the load for USF into the bowl season, rushing for 300 yards on 62 carries.  He has the savvy and knows the offense well, so he is often asked to handle blitz pickup duties on 3rd downs.

Richard Kelly is a very versatile back for the Bulls.  At 6' 0" and 250lbs, he is a receiving threat out of the backfield and also an excellent blocker.  Think of him as USF's H-Back.  

USF is very deep at the running back position 

A few updates here.  Ford was suspended for the first two games.  He is now back.  Plancher has been their best runner.  The stuff about throwing to their backs is dubious at best, unless they've been saving it for this game, which is possible, because their backs have accounted for two receptions in three games.  Also, Jamar Taylor is out for this game.  I expect to see a lot of Ford/Plancher.

Wide Receiver

This summer, I wrote:

Who Left: 

Name Yr Pos Rec. Yards Avg. TD Rec./G Yards/G Note
Taurus Johnson SR WR 38 498 13.1 6 2.9 38 Led team in TD's, 2nd in Yards & Cathes
Marcus Edwards SR WR 19 259 13.6 0 1.5 20 31 Career Starts
Cedric Hill SR TE 16 194 12.1 2 1.2 15 2nd Team Big East


Who Returns:

Name Yr Pos Rec. Yards Avg. TD Rec./G Yards/G
Jessie Hester SR WR 54 579 10.7 3 4.2 45
Carlton Mitchell JR WR 28 405 14.5 1 2.2 31
A.J. Love JR WR 30 354 11.8 2 2.3 27
Dontavia Bogan JR WR 26 354 13.6 1 2 27
Ben Busbee SR TE 7 99 14.1 2 0.5 8
Patrick Richardson SO WR 7 68 9.7 0 0.8 8
Trent Pupello JR TE 2 26 13.0 0 0.2 3

The bulls really spread the ball around to a number of receivers and they are really, really deep at this position.

Jessie Hester,  is the son of former Florida State great Jessie Hester (1981-84) and is the Bulls best wideout.  He was named Offensive MVP for 2008 after leading the the team with 54 receptions.  He's been named to a few pre-season All-Big East teams.  At 6' 0" 180lbs, he's not a burner but has enough speed to get open and runs very nice routes.

Carlton Mitchell is a 6'4" 215lb Junior who missed a good chunk of 2008 due to injury.  When healthy he can be a redzone threat and is very strong and he had a great freshman season.  Though he is a Junior, Mitchell is very raw.  He's one of the best athletes on the team.  FSU fans might compare him to Jarmon Fortson

Dontavia Bogan at 6'1" 185lbs is an explosive threat who had a good spring.  One of several bigtime breakout candidates.  Excellent athlete.

A.J. Love was the Bulls' deep threat before injuring his knee in the Bowl game.  He is expected back for Fall and is making progress with his rehab.  It's anyone's guess as to whether he regains his pre-injury form.

6' 2", 180lb junior Ed Alcin had a very nice spring and could really surprise this year.  Some USF fans believe he is the 2nd best wideout on the team, which is saying something considering his lack of playing time in his first two seasons. 

Theo Wilson could also catch a few balls for the 'bulls.

The Bulls must replace Hill at tight end and will look to Andrew Ketchel who came on strong towards the end of the season and he started the bowl game. At 6'5" 240, he's the best pass-catcher of the tight ends.  Senior workout freak Ben Busbee is primarily a blocking tight end, but he can catch a few balls as well. 

Updates:  Hester has a bum ankle and will either miss this game or be very limited.  Mitchell and Bogan are now their best wideouts.  They look to Mitchell a lot and I believe he is the fastest player on the field come Saturday.  Love and Wilson get a few balls as well.  This group is the polar opposite of BYU.  They are very fast and very big.  But they are undisciplined and don't run good routes.  Hester was the only one who had good receiver and not just athlete skills. 

Because they are pretty raw, USF tries to throw little short routes to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers in space.  They throw deep jump balls (again, big tall fast athletes).  They throw crossing routes.  Their approach is to try and limit the number of routes they run which require precision.

As much as I fawned over Wilson above, there are some obvious difficulties for him.  Besides having no game experience, Wilson almost assuredly doesn't have a good relationship with his wideouts.  He didn't get as many snaps as Grothe in practice because he was the 2nd team guy.  His timing with them can't be great.  FSU must force USF to complete precise routes, particularly in the intermediate level.  Those require touch, timing, and familiarity between QB & WR. 

How will FSU do this?  They need to play some zone defense.  I would suggest cover-3.  I like the cover-3 look because it takes away the deep ball, you can account for at least one flat, and still have 6 defenders in the box against the run.  Hopefully by running a lot of cover-3, FSU will force USF to run passable routes and make their correct sight adjustments.  USF will need to sit down in the voids in the zone and from watching them, they really don't do that well.  I am not sure defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews will do this, however, because he is very stubborn and has been badly outschemed for the better part of this decade.  Next year, FSU will have a decent defensive staff.  For now though, we wait and hope.

Offensive Line

This is clearly the weak link for the 2009 Bulls.  USF must replace four Senior starters in Left tackle Ryan Schmidt, center Jake Griffin, right guard Matt Huners and right tackle Marc Dile .  Dile and Huners were 2nd team ALL-Big-East players, and the departed quartet accounted for 118 starts (Dile had 36).  The Bulls have a major issue here and will have a very tough time replacing those four.  

That's not to say that the departed players were great- they weren't.  The 'Bulls allowed 7.1% sacks (7.1% of passing plays ended in sacks), which is horrible.  They were a lot better than the current crop and at least had some chemistry, however, something this new group will not have in 2009.

Worse yet, the Bulls were counting on help from the JUCO ranks and at least one big player simply won't be in Tampa this year.  They expected JUCO transfer (and former 'Nole) Daron Rose to come in and start at one of the tackle spots.  Rose didn't qualify, however, and will not be playing for the Bulls.  Additionally, JUCO Tackle Carlos Savala is also ineligible.  The Bulls really needed one of them to come in and take over a tackle position.

This off-season has been a disaster for the offensive line, and Head Coach Leavit said that none of the players were good enough to play on his OLine.  

One position is definitely set.  Junior right guard  Zach Hermann is 6'3" 304lbs and made 13 starts as a freshman and 6 last year before injury struck.  Herman is a pure run blocker and is the typical tough guard.    

At the other guard spot might be 6' 4", 292-pound sophomore Chaz Hine.  He didn't play much last year, but is a blue collar guy who could earn the job despite not being very talented.   

The center position will hinge on a number of factors.  At 6' 5" and 285lbs junior center Jacob Sims has the ability to play a lot of positions.  The bulls are also considering him at tackle, but make no mistake, they want him at center.  He'll play tackle if the potential tackles struggle.  He had off-season finger surgery, but is expected to start somewhere on the line this year, either at Right Tackle, Left Guard, or Center.

At center, there's an experiment going on with former defensive tackle Sampson Genus who is one of the strongest players on the roster.  He has looked good according to some reports.  If Genus doesn't work out at center (and he's the better athlete but needs a lot of work), the Bulls will turn to 6' 2" 304lb Soph Kevin McCaskill.  He's almost running even with Genus and was part of the big class the Bulls brought in after 2007.

The other tackle spot a complete mystery.  One possibility is RsFr Jatavious Jackson, a decent recruit at 6' 4" 270lbs.  He's very green and undersized at this point.  RsFr OT Mark Popek is 6'7" 305 and got a lot of work in spring with Sims out due to injury (remember that the coaches want Sims at center but will move him back to tackle if need be).  He's talented but young and inconsistent.  He could challenge Sims for one of the tackle spots and USF hopes he wins so that Sims can play center.    Pushing Jackson at left tackle is 6' 4" 314lb Soph Jeremiah Warren, who is already struggling in the classroom but does have a good bit of talent.  

And don't count out Jamar Bass who is apparently looking reall good for the Bulls (at Left tackle).

The bottom line here is that the Bulls offensive line is very unsettled and even when it does settle, it will not be very talented.  None of the bulls linemen are getting any press for an All-Conference selection.  This group is definitely set up to run block, which is good considering that the Bulls run more than 60% of the time, but they will likely struggle in pass protection.Right now, their projected depth chart is this

Current projected lineup

LT Jeremiah Warren
LG Chaz Hine
C Sampson Genus
RG Zach Hermann
RT: Jake Sims

Warren is a sophomore who had 3 career starts (all this year).  He is starting because Bass is inconsistent.  Hine is also a sophomore with only these 3 games as experience.  Genus is the strongest player on the roster and could present some trouble.  He's a beast:


Genus is huge at "314" lbs (he is at least 320).  But skinny ankles, no?  He's also inexperienced.   Right Guard Hermann is a decent player but a cheap shot artist.  Sims is nothing special.

Because USF's offensive line isn't very good (being honest here, they didn't impress me, though FSU's beat up defensive line could make them look solid), USF does some things to limit their exposure.  one of those is the quick game. 


A few notes here.  First, they ran this from two-tight singleback, which they don't often run.  They've run this play 7 or 8 times from what I've seen.  Opportunity here for the Noles to get a pick-6, but they must balance that with the obvious counter to this, which would be a double move.  

These guys don't work well as a team in the run game.  There will be gaps where FSU can get penetration and stop the run for loss.  That's important because FSU wants to make USF one-dimensional.

They've given up 3 sacks in 77 pass plays (3.9%), against by far the worst competition in the country.  FSU, in comparison, against good competition, has given up 4 sacks in 108 pass plays (3.6%).  This USF line is average at best.  To attack the passing game FSU needs to play coverage, and not rush Daniels aggressively.  The ends must not lose contain or attempt dumb spin moves.  Just a light, straight rush, like Bama did to Tyrod Taylor.  Once they lull Daniels into a sense of false confidence in the pocket, they must attack him via the DELAYED blitz.  Delayed is the key.  USF's offensive linemen will look to help each other out with the initial rushers, and there should be gaps open for Dekoda Watson to run though, as he did last season against Miami.  With contain established, and a free rusher coming in untouched, USF could have some trouble, particularly if their back doesn't pick up the blitz well.  What FSU can't do is telegraph the blitz, like they usually do with little success.  Make this kid sit in the pocket and read a defense, finding his wideouts in traffic.  He can't have that good of a relationship with them yet.


Bottom Line

Last summer, I wrote:

USF's offense will probably struggle this year, particularly against good teams as they did last season.  There is a lot of optimism at the quarterback and skill positions, but I wonder if prognosticators are making the common media error of overlooking line play.  If the Bulls are to have a top 50 offense, they must be able to establish the run.  Despite the new coordinator's background being more pass-happy than USF has seen in recent years, he must stick to the run and play low-risk football, catering to the defense which should be this team's strength.  The Bulls have talked about making more big plays this year, but big plays typically happen because a team is vastly superior to their opponent, or because the defense is cheating to stop something (like the run) and are burned by something else (play action pass).  If USF can't consistently put itself in better situations this year, like 3rd and 4 instead of 3rd and 8, Grothe will be the same old Grothe- taking too many risks and forcing too many passes.  If the offensive line gets it together, the Bulls could have a pretty decent offense as the skill position players are there, but that is a huge if. This is still a team that couldn't get to 350 yards per game in the lousy Big East.  Expect a regression from South Florida's offense and a more conservative gameplan as the season rolls along.  

Now add in "they have a very talented but completely inexperienced quarterback."  Despite the fact that USF has been prepping for this game forever, their offense will stay pretty simple.  Still, FSU has a way of making rookie quarterbacks look like heisman trophy favorites.  Additionally, I worry because USF has some guys from that Norm Chow NC State team that gave Mickey and FSU fits.  Yes, that was the game in which FSU made Daniel Evans look great, to say nothing of Phillip RIvers.  

I predict USF to score 27 points.  

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