For anyone paying attention to USF football in 2016, it’s been plain to see that the Bulls’ defense has been the Achilles heel of an otherwise dominant team.
The defense’s miscues were hard to miss on Saturday against SMU in Dallas, where USF barely held on for a 35-27 win.
The Bulls have allowed an average of 40 points over their last four games, needing an explosive offensive performance in each contest to give them a chance at winning the game.
Though USF (9-2, 6-1) held SMU to 27 points, the Bulls allowed just shy of 600 total offensive yards to the Mustangs, including an embarrassing 423 passing yards.
But despite the “Bull Sharks” now ranking 120th out of 128 FBS teams in total defense, junior defensive back Deatrick Nichols has helped mask just how bad the defense has been over the past two weeks.
On Nov. 12 at Memphis with the Tigers trailing by seven and with a 2nd-and-goal to go, quarterback Riley Ferguson threw at Nichols three times in a row in an attempt for the game-tying score.
With each throw, Ferguson was rejected by smothering defensive pressure from Nichols on the targeted receiver.
Again on Saturday, Nichols masked the Bulls’ troubles on defense with two interceptions.
“My team was really on me now because at the beginning of the season, I dropped multiple picks and that could have changed a whole bunch of games,” he said postgame. “But they still believed in me and they had my back. I worked on it during practice and everything. It was just like, ‘Catch the balls that come to you, because we need it.’”
After halting an SMU third-quarter drive near midfield with an interception of Mustangs quarterback Ben Hicks, Nichols once again made a game-changing play in the closing minutes.
With SMU set up with a second-and-nine at the USF 14-yard line down eight with just under five minutes to go, Nichols picked off Hicks’ pass and ran the ball back to the USF 32 yard-line.
Though the Mustangs would make it back to the USF once more inside the final two minutes, the Bulls got a stop on fourth-and-one to hold on for the win.
“Especially down there in the red zone, keeping them out of the end zone was huge,” coach Willie Taggart said. “Then there at the end, two weeks in a row where our guys stepped up and made some big time plays for us. I can’t say how proud I am of them.
“I’m happy for our defense. They’ve been criticized a lot and rightfully so, but for them to step up when we needed them the most, you can’t ask for more than that.”
Led by the play of dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers, USF opened the contest with a 77-yard touchdown from Flowers to receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling in a game where the Bulls would never trail.
Flowers finished the night with 195 passing yards with three touchdowns and an interception on 7-of-15 passing along with 142 rushing yards on 16 carries.
Junior running back Marlon Mack also added 129 rushing yards on 18 carries, highlighted by his 60-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
If the Bulls want to reach double-digit wins for the first time in program history on Saturday against UCF, they’ll need Nichols’ stellar play to rub off on some of his teammates.