The Bulls’ defense was already written off before the season even began.
But the Bulls came into Saturday’s 31-14 win over UCF with the No. 1 passing defense in the nation and No. 8 in total defense.
They were a unit that had only allowed 26 points and 439 yards in two games. Granted, in its first game against Penn State’s Michael Robinson, who had 85 passing yards, and then Florida A&M, which only had 85 total yards, the Bulls went on to hold the Golden Knights to a total of 253 yards (45 rushing and 208 passing).
By adding or subtracting a few faces – safety Johnnie Jones and defensive end Tim Jones, both returning from injury, and safety Danny Verpaele, who’s been out since the beginning of the season with a foot injury and was replaced by Carlton Williams – the defense is basically the same unit that was ranked 77th in the nation in total defense, giving up an average of 398 yards a game and 4,383 total yards through the entire 2004 season.
“Last year was last year,” said sophomore linebacker Ben Moffitt, who had four tackles against UCF, totaling 15 on the season. “We really don’t want to worry about that. We learned from our mistakes last year, and we made a lot of them. We’ve been really focused this year and really trying to come out and do something.”
What this defense has been doing includes allowing only 230 total yards per game, as well as keeping UCF’s rushing game to minus 5 yards through three quarters of play, as the Golden Knights running backs Kevin Smith and Dontavius Wilcox had just 4 yards combined.
“We’re really seeing some different things. Last year, sometimes I really just wanted to kick myself. All the linebackers are back, and our corners are playing much better,” coach Jim Leavitt said.
Last season saw the departure of Lee Roy Selmon Jr. and Javan Camon, but as Leavitt said, returns linebackers Moffitt and juniors Stephen Nicholas and Patrick St. Louis, as well as Johnnie Jones in the secondary who, as Leavitt claims, “really holds those guys together back there.”
Also returning is defensive end Terrence Royal, along with Tim Jones. Combined, the two have racked up 20 tackles and two and a half sacks.
“It’s not just about me and Johnnie returning,” said Tim Jones, who redshirted last season. “But I think a lot of the guys matured a lot more. We had a very young team. They matured, and that’s why they seem like a different defense.”
Added Nicholas, “Having (Johnnie and Tim) back really helps. They (are) veterans, and it’s good to have them back. We still have things we can work on. We’re playing better but can still drop into our zone (coverage) a little better.”
With the Big East opener set against Louisville on Saturday, which brings a potent offense largely carried by Michael Bush and Brian Brohm (18-for-22 passing with 368 yards and five touchdowns Saturday against Oregon State), the Bulls’ defense doesn’t see the No. 9-ranked team in the nation. Tim Jones said, “That’s just another team coming in.”Moffitt doesn’t feel this defense should still be written off.
“The possibilities are endless,” Moffitt said. “We’re going to work real hard this week. We’re trying to play together as a team. We want to play as hard as we can to the best of our ability. We are trying to bring back the defense that South Florida plays and had played in years past. The biggest key (words) here (for us on defense) is: Don’t be selfish. Whoever is in, is in, and we’re going play that way.”