In recent weeks, USF has bucked its trend from the last three years of showing much promise early in the season only to have it unravel by losing meaningful Big East games.
The Bulls are accustomed to starting strong and fading down the stretch, leaving their late season conference games void of national relevance.
This year, USF (6-3, 3-2) started slow but seems to be hitting its stride in the most important stretch of the season, with the team having an opportunity to climb into a tie at the top of the conference if it wins against Pittsburgh (5-4. 3-1) at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday at noon.
“With two (Big East) losses, it was hard,” senior defensive end David Bedford said. “But to be right back in it and one game away from first place, if we’re able to take down Pitt, it’s something we’re going crazy about.”
Even in the two losses to West Virginia and Syracuse – games that the Bulls mustered just 15 points combined and no offensive touchdowns – coach Skip Holtz said he saw the potential for a turnaround.
“I thought there were so many positive things in those two losses,” he said. “We didn’t go, ‘OK, it’s broke, what do we have to do? Let’s start all over again.’ It was just, ‘We’re that close.’ It’s just a testament to these seniors that they didn’t throw the towel in and go, ‘Oh well, here we go.’
“They can see the film, and say, ‘You know what, we’re three plays away from being undefeated in the league. We’re probably three plays away from having four losses in the league, too. That’s how close college football is.”
If the Bulls defeat the Panthers, they could take sole possession of first in the Big East (if Syracuse falls to Connecticut this weekend) with only a home game against Connecticut left on their conference schedule.
The Bulls also need West Virginia to lose one of its final three games – the Mountaineers play at Louisville, at Pittsburgh and at home against Rutgers – to have a chance at the first Big East title. But to get there, USF must win its last two Big East games.
“This late in the season, they haven’t been in the midst of the league championship talk,” Holtz said. “There haven’t been a lot of if this, then this type of conversations. For them, it’s uncharted waters. It’s exciting. At the end, there’s going to be 11 people left standing as conference champions. If we can put ourselves in that elite crowd, that’d be pretty special.”
The Bulls have an advantage in that they play their last two conference games at home, with a trip to in-state rival Miami sandwiched in between.
The Panthers, who are coming off a 30-28 loss to Connecticut, provide a big challenge for the Bulls, who look to avenge a 41-14 loss last year.
USF defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said the Panthers will arguably pose the stiffest test yet for the Bulls defense, which expects a well-rounded Pitt offensive attack. The Panthers running back tandem of Dion Lewis and Ray Graham has a combined 1,316 rushing yards this season and 15 touchdowns. Receiver Jonathan Baldwin ranks third in the Big East with 641 receiving yards.
“That’s why this is the most complete offense we’ve played,” Snyder said. “In my opinion, this is the most complete offense that’s out there in our league.”
And the challenge is welcomed, USF players say. For the seniors, a win is another step toward erasing the pitfalls of recent years’ Big East slumbers.
“That would be great. This is something that we haven’t been able to do since the beginning of the Big East,” senior center Sampson Genus said. “Each week that passes by is precious to me because it’s coming to an end very soon. Pitt’s a great team. It’s going to be a big, deciding factor in the end.”