South Florida spent the last week preparing for a seldom seen spread offense, the one used by Southern Utah. The preparation worked and it certainly made the offense of the Thunderbirds rarely effective as USF trounced SUU 42-12.
The spread offense of SUU produced 133 yards in Saturday’s game. The Bulls’ defense had a stellar showing against a complicated offense, last seen by the Bulls in a 1998 loss to Georgia Southern.
“We hadn’t seen the option all year and that was a challenge,” sophomore defensive back J.R. Reed said. “We had to put a defense up against the option and we shut them down and we stood up to the challenge.”
The Bulls started their defense in a nickel, as opposed to the usual 4-3 defensive setup. In the first quarter it worked well, stopping the Thunderbirds’ total offense to negative five yards, including only one pass attempt that fell incomplete.
“We are still upset that they actually scored on us because we thought we prepared really well,” junior defensive end Chris Daley said. “It was a letdown in the third quarter when they drove the ball down the field. But the defense came back real strong, and we shut them down so I guess that makes up for it.”
The return of junior weak-side linebacker Kawika Mitchell may have sparked some of the defensive output from the Bulls. Mitchell, who missed last week’s victory against Connecticut due to the death of his grandmother, added three tackles, giving him 66 this season.
“I think our defense played really well,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “We shut them down in the first half. We had a bad third quarter beginning drive … but after that we were real strong. I thought if we played good defense, we’d have a good chance.”
The Bulls defensive strength was not the only noteworthy aspect of the game. Once again, junior quarterback Marquel Blackwell took control in the red zone, contributing three rushing touchdowns, tying the record he set last week against UConn.
Blackwell also threw 37 completions for 295 yards in Saturday’s game. The one blemish on his day came in the Bulls’ first drive when he threw an interception to SUU’s Jerry Cowan, who returned the ball 31 yards. The interception placed the Thunderbirds in position for a field goal a few plays later, their only score of the first half.
“My performance would have been all right if I hadn’t thrown that interception,” Blackwell said. “I just have to continue to better myself each week … I’m expected to play well every week and I have to correct those little mistakes.”
Another highlight on the Bulls’ offense came from sophomore wide receiver Huey Whittaker, who for the second consecutive week got the start in a five-receiver set. Whittaker entered the game as USF’s leading receiver with 31 catches for 318 yards but had one statistic missing – a touchdown.
Whittaker corrected that problem with two touchdown catches in Saturday’s victory. The first came in the third quarter, capping an 11-play, 70-yard drive with a 7-yard catch in the end zone. The second happened in the fourth quarter after Whittaker made three catches for 33 yards in a 42-yard drive, capped off by his 11-yard touchdown. Whittaker was USF’s leading receiver with nine catches for 82 yards.
“It’s getting me where I need to be,” Whittaker said. “I feel like I came in here to do this, and I just feel like I’m in my place right now. I feel like I’m supposed to be doing this.”