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Regular season finale: USF heads to UConn

A season of highs and lows for USF ends this weekend with one last test – a game that could impact the Bulls’ bowl picture.

After getting blown out against in-state rival Miami, USF (7-4) travels to Connecticut to face the Huskies on Saturday at 8 p.m in both teams’ Big East season finale, which will be broadcast by ESPN.

“How are we going to respond in a game like this where a lot of people think it’s going to be a tough challenge for us?” said coach Jim Leavitt, who’s led USF to five consecutive bowl games. “I’m real anxious to see how our guys respond.”

With USF sitting at 3-3 in the Big East, finishing more than .500 in conference play would be a pleasing sign, Leavitt said Tuesday.

It would also improve the Bulls’ bowl chances, with most projections landing them in three possible locations: the International Bowl in Toronto, the St. Petersburg Bowl and the Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.

But if USF wants to do that, it will have to respond to a hampering loss, which it has done twice this season.

The Bulls beat then-No. 20 West Virginia 30-19 on Oct. 30 after a 41-14 loss at Pittsburgh. USF also had arguably its most impressive offensive performance against Louisville on Nov. 21 – the Bulls had 538 yards of total offense – a week after getting stopped cold 31-0 at Rutgers.

Leavitt said USF needs to get better, especially on defense, where it gave up 240 rushing yards to the Hurricanes.

“You don’t go into Notre Dame and beat them if you don’t have a pretty good football team,” Leavitt said of the Huskies’ dramatic overtime win against the Irish on Nov. 21. “We are going to have to play extremely well. If we play like we did last week, we won’t win the game.”

The Huskies boast the second-best rushing attack in the Big East. Sophomore running back Jordan Todman and senior back Andre Dixon each have more than 900 rushing yards this season, and the two have a combined 25 touchdowns.

USF defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said he doesn’t expect Connecticut to do anything but try to beat the Bulls inside.

“When you line up two tight ends and two backs and you are able to run the ball up and down the field on people, why worry about throwing the ball?” he said. “They have a very good offensive line. They are not as athletic at times as some of the other teams we have faced, but they are just well coached. They put their bodies in the right position and they can overtake you if you don’t watch yourself.”

Tresey said UConn’s offensive line mirrors Miami’s, which handled the Bulls’ defensive front with ease last week.

USF’s offense will also seek better results, as quarterback B.J. Daniels had the worst statistical game of his career last week, only connecting on 6-of-16 passes for 77 passing yards.

The good news for the Bulls this week is that Connecticut ranks last in the Big East in total defense, giving up 385 yards per game.

“I didn’t even know that,” said Daniels, who leads USF with 710 rushing yards and six touchdowns this year. “I watched them on film and I thought they were a pretty disciplined defense. They do blitz and they do come at you. Anybody can beat anybody on any night, so we are just going into this game focused and just trying to make sure we do what we need to do.”

Connecticut (6-5), which has undergone an emotional season with the death of starting cornerback Jasper Howard on Oct. 19, has five losses by a combined 15 points and is fresh off a 56-31 blowout win over Syracuse.

With a win, USF will secure its third eight-win regular season in the last four years.

“We‘ve shown at times that we have the abilities to compete at a high level,” Leavitt said. “We haven’t been consistent enough and that is something that has to change. We have to be able to play at a high level all the time.”