The South Florida Bulls, led by head coach Willie Taggart, are sitting at 2-3 on the season after dismantling Syracuse. While that is a great win for the program, the Bulls need to ride this momentum into a run at a bowl berth. Is it possible for South Florida to become bowl eligible this fall?
If South Florida is to make a run at a bowl game, it will come down to how well the defense plays down the stretch. The Bulls face three of the top 50 offenses in the nation (SMU, ECU, Cincinnati) in their final seven games. That also includes the #4 (Navy) and #32 (Cincinnati) ranked rushing attacks nationally. East Carolina also has a tricky rushing attack that can be hard to stop.
The Bulls have done an excellent job in stopping the run game. Well, except for the Florida State game. The Seminoles rushed for 6.0 yards per carry and 278 overall rushing yards in the game. 148 of those yards came on three plays. The Bulls are #27 in the nation in defensive success rate at 34.2%, a number that is approximately 8% better than the national average.
Credit for the marked improvement in the South Florida rush defense goes to sophomore defensive tackle Deadrin Senat (25 tkl, 4 tfl). Senat has been able to stuff the middle of the line with his 6-1, 305 pound frame, leading the Bulls to a stuff rate of 32.6% on run plays, 13.4% higher than the national average. Senat should be the next in a line of South Florida defenders to make the jump to the NFL. Fellow defensive line starters Eric Lee (17 tkl, 3.5 tfl, 1 sack), James Hamilton (9 tkl, 3 tfl, 1.5 sacks), and Zack Bullock (13 tkl, 2.5 tfl, 0.5 sacks) make up one of the better defensive lines in the AAC.
Auggie Sanchez (37 tkl, 3 tfl, 0.5 sacks) has been a tackling machine at middle linebacker with just over seven tackles per game. Overall, the South Florida rush defense is ranked #28 nationally in allowing 119.4 yards per game.
In addition to playing the run well, the Bulls have been excellent in making plays behind the line of scrimmage. 40 tackles for loss, led by cornerback Deatrick Nichols (5 tfl), are good for eight per game. Even versus Florida State, the Bulls were able to get in the backfield and make plays.
Pass defense has been solid this fall in giving up 233.4 yards per game in the air. Senior Jamie Byrd (31 tkl, 1.5 tfl, 2 int) is the most experienced of the group, leading the team in interceptions. The rest of the secondary, cornerbacks Deatrick Nichols (18 tkl, 5 tfl, 1 sack, 1 int) and Ronnie Hoggins (11 tkl, 1.5 tfl, 1 int), as well as safeties Nate Godwin (21 tkl, 0.5 tfl) and Devin Abraham (15 tkl, 1 int) are still learning to gel together as a unit. Considering how young the secondary is, it’s amazing that the Bulls haven’t been gouged more often in the pass game.
As you have noticed already, I have said little to nothing about the South Florida offense. That is for good reason. The offense has a bell cow running back in Marlon Mack (93/576/3TD) and very little else. Quarterback Quinton Flowers (66-107/784/8TD) has been solid in the run game, but lacks the ability to challenge the secondary on a regular basis. His inability to get the ball to his receivers at a high rate is disturbing. The top three wide receivers options all have a catch rate of 59.1% or lower.
Finally, let’s look at the rest of the schedule. Games at Connecticut and home versus SMU are must win games for the Bulls. Wins in those games would get them to 4-3 with five games remaining. A win in the season finale versus Central Florida should get them to five wins, but where does that sixth win come from? Can South Florida beat Navy, East Carolina, Temple, or Cincinnati? That is why we play the game.