Defense faced with option

It’s a common thread in most offensive gameplans: to win consistently, the run must be established. Ask any defensive coordinator and they will say the crux of their gameplan revolves around stopping the run.

And if South Florida (3-3) is to crack the .500 mark for the first time this season, the Bulls will have to concentrate on the latter when they meet Southern Utah Saturday at 7 p.m. in Raymond James Stadium.

“The key, obviously, is can our defense slow down this option attack?” coach Jim Leavitt said. “We haven’t seen it (this year). In the past, we’ve been successful at times (and) at times we haven’t.”

The Thunderbirds present a unique challenge for the Bulls. This will be the first option team South Florida has faced this season, something the Bulls haven’t dealt with in two years. Southern Utah, the first Division I-AA team on USF’s schedule, comes into Saturday’s matchup averaging 234 yards rushing per game, led by tailback Rod Madsen’s 408.

“Our guys know a lot of I-AA teams are better than some I-A teams,” Leavitt said. “If we’re not ready to play, we’ll get beat. If we’re ready to play, we’ll probably have success.”

The problem the option creates for USF is rooted in the defensive scheme the Bulls must implement. Rather than instinctively flying to the ball, South Florida must play more of a disciplined, controlled style in order to stifle the Thunderbirds’ ground game.

“Any breach in assignment, a run could break up the sidelines,” Williams said. “We’re cracking down on assignments and being assignment sound.”

Stopping the option will also require USF’s defensive line to take a more cautious approach in pushing upfield. According to Chris Daley, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks, the focus of the front four will be containment along the line of scrimmage, rather than rushing the quarterback.

“We have to think run first, and then react to the pass,” defensive end Daley said. “Playing an option team, you’ve got to play fundamentally sound.”

Although Southern Utah might not have the prolific option attack of Nebraska, the Thunderbirds are big and talented along the offensive line. Randy Clark (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) and Aaron Hall (6-0, 265) were both preseason D-IAA All-Americans according to The Sports Network. Clark, a tackle, appeared on the first team, while Hall was selected as the second-team center.

“The discipline of the defense is the key and you’ve got to do it (for) 60 minutes,” Leavitt said. “If you stop an option attack over and over again, and (then) you don’t have discipline, they’re out the gate with big plays.”

And the Bulls have had their troubles this season stopping the run. South Florida is giving up an average of 145 yards rushing per game and have held only one team, Pittsburgh, to less than 100. In addition, USF’s run defense has surrendered a pair of 200-yard plus games – one to Northen Illinois and the other to Utah.

However, the USF defense will be bolstered by the return of junior linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who missed the Connecticut game while with family following his grandmother’s death. Mitchell, a member of the prestigious Butkus Award Watch List, is the Bulls’ leading tackler with 63 and returned to practice Wednesday.

“Kawika’s one of those guys that’s always smiling and at the practice field he’s always making jokes and getting everybody going,” receiver Travis Lipp said. “He brings (to the team) the joy of playing with him. Without him here, that’s some of the heart of the soul of the team that’s missing. I think having him back will really spark us.”

  • Brandon Wright covers football and can be reached at