After looking at Big Ten newcomer Rutgers yesterday, it’s time to go back to the non-conference schedule and look at the final opponent outside of the Big Ten — South Florida (a.k.a. USF).
Wisconsin and the Bulls have never met before, and that shouldn’t be surprising given the fact that USF has only been playing FBS football since the 2001 season. Head coach Willie Taggart is entering a crucial second season at the helm of the Bulls, after being one of the more popular names in college coaching.
Year one wasn’t pretty, with an FBS history low 2-10 record. Heck, the Bulls have only suffered three losing seasons in the entire history of the program.
Let’s take a look at what we do know about a team in desperate need of reform that will end the Badgers’ non-conference season, shall we?
Willie Taggart isn’t known as a defensive guru, but 2014 could be all about what that group can do. Luckily for him, the defense was the saving grace in most of the games. Given the lack of help from the Bulls offense, ranking 78th in scoring defense (28.6 points per game) was a great feat.
USF plays a 3-4 defense, and did so because of who the young players were on the roster. All but three starters return on a unit that was 21st in total defense, 28th in rushing defense and 26th in pass defense nationally.
The Bulls clearly will rely on the nine returning starters, four of which were freshman or sophomores last year. In fact, three quarters of the USF secondary were freshmen or sophomores — cornerback Kenneth Durden and safeties Hassan Childs and Nate Goodwin combined for five interceptions and 91 tackles — making the passing defensive ranking even more impressive.
Look for the Bulls defense to carry this team as it finds an identity on offense in 2014.
11 - that is the number of touchdowns USF scored last year. Of course that was the worst mark in FBS.
It’s because this team had zero playmakers and an offensive line that couldn’t keep quarterback Mike White upright. White returns, but I’m not so sure that’s a positive thing. After all, he did complete just 53.1 percent of his passes for barely over 1,000 yards and had three touchdowns to nine interceptions on the year.
I don’t care what the offensive line looks like, that’s unacceptable from any starting quarterback in Taggart’s system. The Bulls do have Penn State transfer Steven Bench in the fold, who led the team in the spring game performance — passing for 317 yards and three touchdowns.
White wasn’t as spectacular, going 20-of-34 for 174 yards and no touchdowns. Could Bench unseat White this fall? If that performance continues in to the fall you’ve got to go that route, despite the fact that White started the final six games of his freshman season.
It will be interesting to see if Bench can perform well enough in the fall to make this a true competition, something Taggart wasn’t willing to admit to after the spring game.
“One spring game doesn’t do it for us. I feel we have two quarterbacks who can get it done for us,” Taggart said, via Alan Dell of the Bradenton Herald. “It’s amazing what competition will do, but it’s also amazing what experience will do. There is a synergy among our offensive linemen that gets things going for us.”
Biggest question mark:
Will this team have enough weapons on offense to make things work? That was the question coming in to spring and the one that still remains after the 35-3 spring game performance.
No matter the starter at quarterback, there needs to be some help around him — and there were few playmakers on the Bulls roster last season. Gone is the leading rusher, Marcus Shaw (who managed just over 700 yards) and that leaves a major hole to fill.
Spring showed us that Michael Pierre could be an answer, rushing for 75 yards on 15 carries in the spring game alone. However, this group had major issues along the line throughout spring and is clearly a work in progress.
That goes for the wide receivers as well, with leading receiver Andre Davis (49 receptions, 735 yards and 3 touchdowns) back. He’s a nice part to have, but he was the only one to really do anything and teams will key on him all season long in 2014.
Taggart knows that speed was lacking from the skill positions and his first full recruiting class could be an answer, especially at wide receiver where USF signed four such players. USF needs all the help it can get in rebuilding its offense, and if it wants to take advantage of a quality defense it will need to turn things around at the skill positions quickly.
What it all means:
Taggart did remarkable work while at Western Kentucky, but USF’s turnaround may take more time than the Hilltoppers did. At least the good news is USF can’t get much worse than the 2-10 season it suffered through last year. If spring football was any indication, there is at least some hope on the offensive side of the ball. USF may be a middle of the pack AAC school this season, but Wisconsin is head and shoulders above the Bulls on paper and from what I’ve seen in spring from both teams. Don’t expect a close game at Camp Randall.