USF’s Big East title contention at stake

A season that started with promise — the Bulls were picked to finish second in the Big East in the preseason media poll — may be on the brink of collapse.

The No. 23 South Florida football team is 6-2, but lost two of its last three games  to Big East Conference opponents. Tonight at 7:30, the Bulls could climb back into the conference title race with a win, but they have to get through the Cincinnati Bearcats on the road, in 36-degree weather.

“It’s a huge chance to get a win,” senior linebacker Tyrone McKenzie said. “We need to go out there and get a win, because every game is so important to us.”

Every game is important for the Bulls because there is a logjam of teams near the top of the Big East standings. West Virginia is undefeated in conference games, four teams — including Cincinnati — have one loss and two teams have two losses.

If the Bulls win, they will make a leap in the conference standings and be back near the top, with two of their three remaining games to be played at Raymond James.

A loss would take the Bulls out of the Big-East-title picture completely.

“We know this is huge,” McKenzie said. “Every game is huge.”

Aside from blowout wins against North Carolina State (41-10) and Syracuse (45-13), the Bulls’ defense has allowed opponents to score late in games.

Defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said a lack of turnovers — the team has 10 forced turnovers this year, while former Bulls Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams forced 10 between them — has hurt the team.

“I think we had more playmakers (last year),” he said. “We’re missing those guys. We’ve been a little bit more successful yardage-wise, but we haven’t forced as many turnovers.”

The defense will be tested by a Bearcat offense that runs a spread offense, usually with four receivers on the field. Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said the defense will play as many defensive backs as it needs to stop Cincinnati.

For the second consecutive game, the Bulls will be playing in a stadium where they’ve never won. It is also USF’s third Thursday night game in the last two years. USF is 0-2 on Thursdays.

“We don’t have any control over when we play. That’s up to the Big East,” Douglas said. “All we can do is prepare ourselves to go up there and win a football game.”