Passing game key for USF

The Bulls are seeking their best start in school history and bowl eligibility Saturday against Central Florida.

With key victories against Auburn and West Virginia, the Bulls have made a rapid ascent from unknowns into possible BCS bowl candidates.

Only Boston College has made a more dramatic jump in the polls, as the Eagles didn’t even receive a vote in either the preseason Associated Press or USA Today coaches polls, and are now No. 4.

Although USF is coming off a disappointing performance against Florida Atlantic, the contest reflected much of the season for the team.

Before their second game against Auburn, the team adopted the motto “Finish Strong” and has done just that – only after a quick start.

The Bulls are outscoring their opponents 42-3 in the first quarter and hold a 79-46 scoring advantage in the second half.

In its last outing against Florida Atlantic, USF lost some credibility for poor play against an opponent considered inferior. The close final score is nothing new.

USF’s only dominating performance came against North Carolina three weeks ago when it won 37-10.

When playing Auburn, the Bulls needed a touchdown in overtime to secure the victory. Elon and West Virginia both had opportunities at Raymond James Stadium to win but couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity.

Defense has led the way

The Bulls are undefeated because their defense doesn’t allow opponents into the end zone. Opponents have ventured into the red zone 18 times and have scored only six touchdowns.

During USF’s seven-game winning streak dating back to 2006, no opponent has scored more than 23 points and the defense has allowed only 15.4 points per game in that span.

Everything for the Bulls defense starts up front with sophomore George Selvie and the defensive line.

Selvie leads the nation in sacks (10.5) and tackles for a loss (17.5), and has anchored a defense that has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher.

For USF to improve to 3-0 against the Knights, it will have to slow down one of the premier rushers in the nation.

Kevin Smith has averaged 172 rushing yards per game and 11 touchdowns through five games. Against Texas, he gained 149 yards and almost led UCF to the upset victory.

Last season Smith was held out of the contest, serving a one-game suspension against the Bulls.

Outside of the junior running back, the Knights offense is limited. Smith has run for more yards (860) than starting quarterback Kyle Israel has passed for (825) this season. As the season has progressed, Israel has been losing snaps to sophomore Michael Greco.

Pass game must improve

The Bulls were able to win last season’s contest behind the arm of quarterback Matt Grothe. Making his third career start, Grothe threw for a career-high three touchdowns and his yardage was the second highest total of his career.

The passing game has struggled to begin the season, and wide receiver Ean Randolph’s graduation has left Grothe without a primary target.

The Bulls have yet to pass for 250 yards and no receiver has gone over 65 yards though five games.

Against Florida Atlantic, USF abandoned its passing attack, turning Grothe into a rusher and allowing Ben Williams to run for a career-high 186 yards and set a school-record four touchdowns.

Grothe has thrown three interceptions in the last two games – the sophomore didn’t throw one in the first three contests. He has passed for just 257 yards and had one touchdown in the last two outings.

Along with the interception totals, the wide receivers have dropped numerous passes, dropping Grothe’s completion percentage to 60.1 percent.

Without a passing attack, the Knights will bring up safeties Jason Venson and Sha’reef Rashad to neutralize the Bulls’ ground game.