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Florida State football opponent Q&A: South Florida

A USF perspective on Saturday’s nooner in Tampa

Northern Illinois v South Florida Photo by Jason Behnken / Getty Images

We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. Week Four’s edition of our Opponent Q&A series features a chat with Collin Sherwin of The Daily Stampede, SBN’s home for USF coverage. We discuss a potent rushing attack, an improved passing game, and what it will take for the Bulls to notch a home upset of the ‘Noles.

TN: The Bulls hit their stride following the Florida State game last season, and they seem to have continued that trajectory in 2016. What were your expectations coming into the year, and have the first three weeks done anything to change them?

TDS: Though USF did play better than I thought against FSU last year, I’ll disagree a bit with your premise: I’d argue USF hit their stride against Syracuse last year. Against FSU they were still trying to pound the ball into the line and base throwing off a running game. Now they just take whatever is available offensively.

It’s been an entirely different team since the 2nd half of the game against the Orange last year, and this year’s edition last week showed the progress the Bulls have made. They fell behind 17-0 due to lack of focus and standard trap game problems, but didn’t panic, and just out-executed a bad team to close on a 45-3 run.

I expected them to be about where they are. I thought they have Top 25 talent,, and I thought they’d be able to put a lot of points on the board. The question marks we had were ability to get pressure defensively, and the kicking game. The defense has been able to make plays against bad teams, but what they’ll get on Saturday will be their first big test. And the kicking game has been just fantastic so far.

The difference this season is the depth at the skill positions. USF has never had this many playmakers on the field at the same time.

TN: Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack present a formidable backfield duo. How does the USF offense utilize their talents, and what will be the key to their success against the ‘Noles?

TDS: A lot of zone read, and a lot of packaged stuff. Both guys are very elusive with breakaway ability, and Flowers does things with his legs and just enough with his arm where you can’t simply sellout blitz. He’ll miss a lot of throws, but he doesn’t throw a lot of interceptions either. He makes big plays look easy, and has a very big arm for a smaller guy.

Mack has a great package of speed and the ability to run over people. He’s a complete back that will get the ball often if the box is clear. USF’s base personnel is a single back, 3 WR’s and a TE. Once that extra defender pulls out of the box and into coverage, you’ll see a lot of Mack.

TN: Which pass-catchers have stepped up for the Bulls who FSU fans should keep their eyes on this weekend?

TDS: Rodney Adams is a threat both as a receiver and as a runner in jet sweep action. He’s got two TD’s receiving and four as a rusher so far this season, and has some raw speed and runs good routes.

The guy we’ve been the most excited about has been Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who might end up being the best in USF history at the position. A transfer from NC State that came home, he’s the total package of speed, size, hands, blocking, and route-running. He’s a program-changing type of player, and since USF has exactly three career NFL receptions by a wide receiver (Carlton Mitchell), he should shatter the mold.

Those guys are on the marquee, but the depth is why USF has been successful. Ryeshene Bronson, Tyre McCants, and D’Ernest Johnson out of the backfield are guys that can make plays as well, and will if a defense tries to bracket or double Adams or Scantling, watch for Bronson on 9 routes… he can get behind a defense and score.

Something to keep an eye on: USF ran a lot of a double-stack look to the wide side of the field that we hadn’t seen until last week at Syracuse. Two WR’s on the line, and two a couple yards behind them. Watch for the formation, and possibly a gadget play out of it.

Where the Bulls have also excelled this season is blocking by the wide receivers and running backs. Guys have been able to hit and hold their blocks really effectively.

TN: How much aggressiveness can FSU fans expect from Raymond Woodie’s 4-2-5 defense on Saturday?

TDS: This is the $64,000 question. I think they’ll run blitz some to try and keep Dalvin in check, but some of the crazy stuff off the edge with nickels (we call it the Striker or Bull position) and corners (Cat blitzes) likely won’t fly. In 3rd and long you might see some exotic stuff dialed up, but mostly I think they’ll try and take away the big play and stay in gaps.

Woodie hasn’t been afraid to bring heat versus the first three opponents, but those teams didn’t have the playmakers FSU does. Francois’ ability to extend plays with his legs makes it even more penal if he gets outside the pocket and sees man coverage because of the blitzers in his rearview mirror.

I think you’ll see a lot of assignment football from USF, but this will be Woodie’s fourth career game as a playcaller, and his first as an underdog on talent. We’ll see what he does.

TN: In which position group are you most confident for the USF defense? Which worries you the most in the match-up against the Seminoles?

TDS: Most of my faith is in the linebackers. Nigel Harris has been USF’s best defender this season, and senior Auggie Sanchez has been a leader as well as the “QB” of that unit. They’ll have their hands full with Cook, but are good players that will make him work hard.

Travis Rudolph against any USF DB terrifies me. Bobo too. Those guys have a class of speed and elusiveness that the Bulls haven’t seen yet. Deatrick Nichols and Ronnie Hoggins both have speed, but are also smaller guys. USF did a very nice job on Kenny Golladay of NIU (remember the name), but less so against Amba Etta-Tawo & Ervin Phillips of Syracuse, especially early.

TN: How have the South Florida special teams performed to date?

TDS: Brilliantly. We were quite worried coming into the season, but Emilio Nadelman has been perfect placekicking (3-3 FG’s, 20-20 PAT's), and Jonathan Hernandez has been a revelation as a punter. He wasn’t even named the starter before the Towson game as we had an “OR” on the depth chart. When you haven’t named a starting punter for an FCS game, you can see why there was concern. But Hernandez (6’4, 241 lbs) has a huge leg, and also capable of pinning it deep (8 of his 15 kicks have been inside the 20). They’ve both been fantastic.

D’Ernest Johnson ran back a punt last week vs. Syracuse for a TD, but he also muffed one. It was USF’s second punt muff of the season, so if there was an area to worry that would be it. But on the whole USF likes where the kicking game is right now.

TN: Finally, tell us how you see this one unfolding. Will the Bulls pull the relatively minor upset in the coming home nooner?

TDS: I freely admit to having no feel for this game at all. I was at FSU-Ole Miss, and that second half terrified me. But there’s some tape on this offense and Francois now, and a chance for USF to find some holes.

I’m a big believer in Jimbo and his ability to adjust, but I also think this USF team will play out of their minds. The advantage of being as bad as USF was in 2013 and ‘14 is that a lot of guys that are playing now got valuable reps. There aren’t many seniors, but there’s also plenty of veterans with 20ish starts.

I think the speed of the FSU defense will be the biggest factor, but the Bulls have seen it before so they’ll know what’s coming. USF will for sure hit some big plays, but I don’t know if they can do it consistently enough. Quinton Flowers will have to have the game of his life for USF to win. Also USF doesn’t turn it over much, so a +2 turnover margin might get it done.

A Bulls win wouldn’t shock me at all, but I think FSU finds a way to crawl home thankful that they escaped. 41-38 Seminoles. Bulls cover, win the AAC East, and finish the season no worse than 10-2.

Big thanks to Collin for his time and insight! Be sure to head over to The Daily Stampede for all things USF. Our answers to their questions are here.