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South Florida's Run Game Is Sneaky Good

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The shutdown defense of South Florida has been the story of the season, but a change to spread formations has been able to improve the Bulls to the #21 rushing offense in the nation.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into this season, it was common belief that if the South Florida Bulls did not find a way to improve on offense in 2015, the program would seriously consider making a change at head coach.

With the move to a spread style offense, led by quarterback Quinton Flowers, the Bulls have been able to improve on their four wins in 2014 and two wins in 2013. A win in one of their final three games would make South Florida bowl eligible and double head coach Willie Taggart's win total at USF from six to 12.

So what are the Bulls doing differently to make their offense tougher to stop?

By using the spread formation, South Florida has forced teams to actually respect the quarterback as a runner. Flowers is second on the team with 657 yards on the ground and a team-leading seven touchdowns. Compare that to 2014 with Mike White (now at Western Kentucky). White only had 44 positive yards rushing last season at the starting quarterback. Simply put, he did not run the ball unless he absolutely had to. By finding a way to get Flowers approximately 15 carries per game, the defensive focus shifts from completely on running back Marlon Mack to both Mack and Flowers.

Marlon Mack. His progression as a running back has been impressive to watch. As a freshman in 2014, he was virtually the only running game option for the Bulls. His 1,041 yards on the ground was impressive, but it was also 80.3% of the rushing total for the entire team. The 2014 freshman was able to still average over 5.0 yards per carry, despite the defense knowing it would be him carrying the ball.

This season has seen a significant change in the way he is used. Rather than being the only option in the backfield, he is the top option among many to run the football. Flowers (133 carries), Darius Tice (56 carries), and D'Ernest Johnson (46 carries) have all been able to find significant roles within the offense.

During a game against Connecticut, the Bulls showed off a three back set that included Mack, Flowers, and a combination of Tice or Johnson. In essence, it was a bit of an option attack from the spread formation. Putting multiple backs into play forced the Connecticut defense to play everyone honest and give up several big plays that were the difference in the game.

You can look at all of the different numbers that prove how much Mack has improved from his 2014 AAC Freshman of the Year season, but it all comes down to one number: usage rate. In 2014, Mack carried the ball on 53.7% of all run plays for the above mentioned 80.3% of all rushing yards. This season, Mack has carried the ball on only 36.4% of all rushing plays for 42.7% of all rushing yards.

As a result of being able to spread the ball around to more ball carriers, the Bulls have seen their overall yards per carry jump from 3.4 in 2014 to 5.0 in 2015. It cannot be overstated just how much of an improvement that is. The Bulls already have 658 more yards on the ground than last season with three games still left to play.

You can even make the case that Flowers has been better in the passing game than White was last fall. Much of that is due to defenses being forced into stopping the run. Flowers has been able to go over the top for explosive passes, as evidenced by the Bulls #10 ranked passing IsoPPP. Overall, the Bulls have improved by approximately 90 yards of total offense per game.

While there are significant steps that still need to be taken for South Florida to reach their potential, there is much more hope that it can be done with this coaching staff.