TN: After a 2-0 start that included a thrilling win over Nevada, USF has lost at home to Rutgers and on the road against Ball State. What have been the major causes of South Florida's early season struggles?
V5:The offensive line was a problem in both games. They had a hard time with any kind of blocking against Rutgers' stout defensive front. Then against Ball State, they managed to run block fairly well but still couldn't protect B.J. Daniels at all. (Daniels' athleticism prevented a lot of negative plays.) The line has two new starters in center Austin Reiter, who has not been good, and right tackle Quinterrius Eatmon. Then before the season, incumbent left tackle Mark Popek was moved to left guard and sophomore Darrell Williams was put in his place. That hasn't worked very well, either, and Popek finally shifted back to left tackle in the second half against Ball State.
TN: What has first year defensive coordinator Chris Cosh brought to South Florida and how has he fared thus far? Does his defense feature a significant change from that of Mark Snyder?
V5: So far, a whole lot of nothing. I didn't think this was a very good hire to begin with, because I live in Big XII country and watched a number of Kansas State games, and knew how utterly mediocre Cosh's defense was. Although the structure of the defense isn't a whole lot different than what Snyder was doing, they've been far less effective this season. The front four is not getting much pressure on the quarterback, the blitzes seem telegraphed and don't get there, and the coverage is just as soft as Snyder's defense last year. You could understand Nevada rolling up big yardage against the Bulls because their offense is so unique and hard to stop... but less so against Rutgers and Ball State. In fact USF's defense didn't force a single negative play (a sack, a turnover, a TFL, anything) against the Cardinals.
TN: The Seminoles have piled up huge offensive numbers so far in 2012, especially (and somewhat surprisingly) on the ground. How has USF fared against the run this season and what will the aforementioned Cosh need to do to contain the Florida State offense and give the Bulls a chance to pull the upset?
V5: USF hasn't faced an FBS team that runs the ball the way the Seminoles do. Nevada's Pistol probably comes the closest and they ran for almost 300 yards against the Bulls. Ball State also had a surprising amount of success running out of their spread. I expect FSU to run between the tackles more than they did against Clemson, because it should be an area where the Seminoles have a pretty big advantage.
Overall, the Bulls have to do at least one thing they haven't done much of to this point to slow down FSU's offense. Either they have to get a push up front, or they have to put heat on EJ Manuel as a passer, or they need to force mistakes. Really, they'd have to reprise their defensive effort from the FSU game in 2009, when they had five future NFL players on the field.
TN: Florida State fans are quite familiar with Tallahassee native BJ Daniels after he dealt the ‘Noles a home loss as a freshman in 2009. How has Daniels progressed as a player since his freshman year and what are his strengths and weaknesses? How much of USF's offensive output falls directly on his shoulders?
V5: Daniels is still just as fast and elusive as a runner as he was back in 2009. The FSU game was his first collegiate start, and the passing game in his freshman year was basically "grip it and rip it." He's a better passer than he was then, and he's had some games where he looks like a legitimate dual-threat quarterback. The strange thing, though, is that Daniels is less accurate on short and intermediate passes than he is going deep. I think that's why the deep ball has been more prominent in USF's offense this year. More on that in a minute.
In this particular game, I think Daniels will have to carry almost the entire offense. He won't have to gain every yard, but he'll have to make the right decisions when the Bulls use the option, and he'll have to be decisive and accurate throwing the ball. I don't think he'll have time to sit in the pocket and wait for guys to get open. I don't think conventional running will work very well, either.
TN: Wideout Chris Dunkley was a key player for the Bulls in the Nevada win, but was out with a knee injury last week at Ball State. Will he play for USF on Saturday evening? Are there any other notable injuries for South Florida heading into the game? Who are some other USF playmakers that ‘Noles fans should keep their eyes on?
V5: USF had some contributors injured over the last few games, including backup running back Marcus Shaw and their top cornerback, Kayvon Webster. I haven't heard if Dunkley will be back for this game, but last year's leading receiver, Sterling Griffin, tore his ACL against Nevada and is out for the year. Fortunately receiver is USF's deepest position, and Andre Davis may be the first true go-to receiver the Bulls have had in a long time, if ever. On Bud's podcast I also identified running back Lindsey Lamar as a possible impact player. I'll add tiny receiver Derrick Hopkins to that, because they're the two fastest players the Bulls have on offense.
The defensive playmakers, if there are any, include outside linebackers Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore, plus Webster. (And although he's a backup now, ask Tavares Pressley if he remembers Jon Lejiste.)
TN: What style of offense does Todd Fitch run at South Florida? Where do you think that he will look to attack a very good FSU defense and how much success do you think he'll have?
V5: Fitch takes an undeserved amount of heat from USF fans because his offense is actually pretty good, for the most part. During his 2 1/2 years he's made adjustments to the offense several times to try and maximize the talent of his players. He started out with a traditional offense, changed it to more of a spread to better suit Daniels, then last year added an option run game to make Daniels more of a running threat. This year USF is throwing deep more because Daniels does it well and Fitch has the receiving talent to make it work. The option running (not traditional option, but more read and veer plays) have been on the shelf this season, but this would probably be the week for them to return if they're going to return. I expect the Bulls to try and do some of the things Clemson did in the running game, and they'll need to throw short and sustain drives because the Seminoles will probably take away the deep passes.
TN: Tell us a bit about USF's special teams. Do you think that FSU will kick to South Florida return men on kickoffs, or do you think that the ‘Noles will have kicker Dustin Hopkins send the ball out of the back of the endzone?
V5: God, what a disaster. FSU might as well kick it to USF's returners because they've had a lot of trouble in this area. It's strange, because Lindsey Lamar ran two kickoffs back for touchdowns in 2010 and has been really bad at it ever since. On top of that, the punting game can be really inconsistent, the coverage teams have been better but are prone to blowups, and USF has already botched three extra points this year, although I would only pin one of them on Maikon Bonani, USF's kicker. He's the Bulls' all-time leading scorer and a pretty good college kicker. Not on Dustin Hopkins' level, but good enough. Remember he missed the previous game against FSU because he fell out of a skyride gondola while working a summer job at Busch Gardens and missed the 2009 season.
TN: Outside of the context of Saturday's game, what is the state of the South Florida program under Skip Holtz? Have the Bulls been able to capitalize on Miami's demise on the recruiting trail?
V5: It's really at a crossroads right now. The third year is where you find out what a coach is capable with in your program, but unfortunately this is shaping up to be USF's worst season yet. The team looks ragged, undisciplined, and poorly managed. It's very possible the Bulls don't go bowling again this year, which would be pitiful with the current state of the Big East. We're going to talk about this more next week, assuming that FSU wins on Saturday. USF has never reached this point with its football program, where fans are openly questioning the head coach and starting to demand action. But they won't get it, because over the summer, our athletic director Doug Woolard inexplicably gave Holtz a contract extension. (Then he gave himself a contract extension and didn't tell anyone - that only got out when the Tampa Bay Times' beat writer FOIAed it.) Holtz's contract now runs through 2017, and USF certainly doesn't have the money to buy it out any time soon.
I don't think USF has capitalized on Miami's demise because they don't do that much recruiting in Miami's stronghold areas. (Louisville, on the other hand, is cleaning up.) The Bulls are recruiting better in Tampa Bay, and they have a bit of a pipeline going in Orlando, where quarterback commit Asiantii Woulard is from. Woulard won the Elite 11 quarterback camp in July and shot up the recruiting rankings to be a Rivals100 player, and even though the Bulls look very average this year, he's still solidly committed to USF. Daniels moves on after this year, and there's a chance Woulard becomes the fifth straight USF quarterback to start at least one game in all four years on the team.
TN: And finally, a prediction. The spread is currently around 16.5 points favoring Florida State. What do you think of this number and how do you see Saturday's game playing out?
V5: Oh good, a gambling question! I thought that number was pretty low -- I thought it was going to come in somewhere between 21 and 24, which gives you an idea of how I think the game will go. This might be the best team USF has ever played, better than Oklahoma in 2002 and the 2005-07 West Virginia teams. The Bulls may hit one or two big plays on FSU's defense, but I think the Seminoles will mostly control the game because I don't know how USF is going to stop them from moving the ball and scoring points. The Noles aren't going to have too much of a letdown because one loss ends their national title chances, and they know they might be good enough to play for it. I don't like predicting scores, and I'm not likely to pick this game in our site's gambling contest, but I expect FSU to cover.
Thanks to Jamie and Voodoo Five! We have enjoyed working with them this week.