Fueled by a passing game that averaged more than 273 yards per game last season, the Bulls owned the 16th best offense through the air in 2001. The USF air attack hasn’t been grounded yet this season either, as the Bulls (2-0) victimized Florida Atlantic for 263 yards and Northern Illinois for another 273 yards.
But USF might meet its match Saturday at 7 p.m. when the Bulls travel to Arkansas to face the Razorbacks (1-0). Arkansas touts one of the best secondaries in the nation, led by free safety Ken Hamlin. In 2001, Hamlin led the Razorbacks with 118 tackles and intercepted three passes. The Sporting News tabbed Hamlin as the best free safety in the country and an All-American. As a unit, The Sporting News pegged Arkansas’ defensive backs as the eighth best group in all of Division I-A.
“You don’t hold Boise State down like they did,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “Boise State is a high-powered offense that is going to score a lot of points this year, and they shut them down. That was a pretty good indicator.”
Boise State was 8-4 in 2001, including knocking off undefeated Fresno State and the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick, quarterback David Carr, 35-30. However, Saturday, the Broncos offense looked pedestrian in the face of a swarming Razorback defense. Arkansas recorded seven sacks, forced four fumbles and intercepted three passes. Adding to Arkansas’ overpowering 41-14 victory against the Broncos, the Razorbacks sidelined Boise State quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie with a broken ankle. Among the top five quarterbacks in passing efficiency last year, Dinwiddie could miss the rest of the season.
“Even before you get into the secondary, they come after you so much, so often with so much great speed and athletes,” Leavitt said.
“They pressure your quarterback so, as everybody knows, you can have a great secondary, but if you have a front four and guys that come off the ball and blitz and come after you, the quarterback has to make some good decisions. He has to make them quickly and sometimes that can help your secondary out. Now in their own right, they’re very good. It’ll be a challenge.”
Combining with Hamlin to make the Razorbacks secondary imposing are cornerbacks Ahmad Carroll and Lawrence Richardson. All three are semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award. The challenge posed by the highly ranked Razorback defense is something the USF wide outs are cherishing.
“As a receiver, that’s what we love to hear,” senior DeAndrew Rubin said. “That just drives us even more when we’re not on those lists. When we play those guys, we get a chance to show the country what we’re about.”
Rubin put all of his skills on display Saturday vs. Northern Illinois, grabbing four passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns, including a 95-yard scoring strike, the longest play in USF history. The Bulls also have been the beneficiary of Rubin’s work on special teams, as he’s returned punts for touchdowns in his last three games.
“People underestimate us,” Rubin said. “(But) if we keep doing good things, we’re going to open up people’s eyes.”
Rubin had a record-setting performance last year in what was then called USF’s biggest game, compiling 11 receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-26 win against Pittsburgh Sept. 8. Turf toe severely hampered Rubin from there, but the Bulls are confident their depth could be more than Arkansas can handle.
“We have a lot of speed,” senior Hugh Smith said. “All of our receivers run like 4.4, 4.3 40s. We’re as fast as any receiving corps. We’re going to play ball and move it up the field.”
Rubin hasn’t been the only USF receiver to shine in 2002. Smith has established career highs in receptions each time out so far this season. Smith snared eight balls for 73 yards against Florida Atlantic, then topped that with 10 catches vs. NIU.
While the USF receivers vs. the Arkansas secondary poses an intriguing matchup, an even more fierce confrontation will come when the Bulls’ eight-game winning streak faces what many term the biggest game in their history.
“They’re all exciting, they’re all big,” Leavitt said. “I don’t really think about it like that, that this is the biggest game. Last week Northern Illinois was the biggest game that I could have thought of. The week before FAU, I was out of my mind with just, ‘do we have enough time to get ready for FAU?’ The next week, we could have played FAU 10 years before, and all I thought about was playing Northern Illinois.
“This week I think about Arkansas. I don’t think about perspective and its relationship with other games. I think this is the next game, and the next game is always the biggest game for me.”
Anthony Gagliano covers football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org