Special teams help turn things around
It’s been three games since USF’s last bye week, coming off a three-game losing streak only to get beaten handily at home Oct. 26 to a Top 25 Miami team.
Now USF enters another bye week, elated after closing out UConn on the road, and the Bulls are 2-0 in the conference on a two-game winning streak heading into a noon kickoff against No. 8 Louisville for Homecoming.
Since the loss to the Hurricanes, USF seems to have found a winning formula in conference play.
That formula certainly doesn’t include a scoreless offense with two starters sitting out injured after the last victory.
While the defense has been making improvements, nabbing four interceptions in the past three games with two fumbles taken back for touchdowns in the two wins, a large portion of help has been coming from the special teams.
The turnaround for USF began after its loss to Miami.
Throughout the 49-21 loss to the ’Canes, redshirt sophomore punter Mattias Ciabatti gained fame for a shanked punt that went two yards out of USF’s own endzone.
It was Ciabatti’s first season as a starter and four games in, he was on ESPN’s “Not Top 10.”
But the punter didn’t lower his head in shame.
“You have to put it behind you especially as a kicker or punter,” he said. “Every kick is different. If the first kick is great, you have to forget it. If it’s bad, you have to forget it. You can’t build on it, there’s no momentum to kicking. It’s just one kick to the next.”
In addition to the 2-yard punt, Ciabatti had five punts out of his total of seven returned for a total of 31 yards.
Even redshirt junior Marvin Kloss, who has been 6-of-6 in field goals in the past two games, had none against the ’Canes.
That’s where the turnaround for Ciabatti and the special teams began.
Special teams coordinator Stu Holt recalled the punter’s famous shank, but since then, he said he’s been impressed with Ciabatti.
“I’ve been real impressed because I turned my head when he kicked that one against Miami then I saw it later and said ‘Wow, that’s impressive for the wrong reasons,’” Holt said. “To his credit, he’s a mature guy and he bounced back. To be able to put that out of his head and hit consistent punts speaks a lot of his maturity.”
In USF’s game at UConn, it was Ciabatti’s time to shine, punting a USF record nine punts in the 13-10 victory.
Three of his punts went for more than 50 yards and pinned the Huskies within their own 20-yard line.
Ciabatti averaged 44 yards per punt. The lead punter in the NCAA averages 47 yards.
“I know I had to punt a lot, but I do whatever can help my team,” he said. “It makes me feel good about doing my job. Specialists aren’t the biggest part of the team but when we can be a big part, we love it.”
Even the coverage on punts has improved immensely since the Miami game.
The Huskies only managed to return five punts for a total of seven yards, which followed USF’s first win over Cincinnati where the Bearcats returned one for four yards.
“Our guys have bought into (the game plan),” Holt said. “It’s one thing to put them in, it’s another for them to buy in 100 percent.”
Another factor adding to the special teams has been blocks on field goals, in which USF has two in the two wins, both blocked by redshirt junior tight end Mike McFarland.
“A big part of that deal is the defensive tackles,” Holt said. “Mike gets the credit with the block, but a big part of that puzzle is our defensive tackles getting penetration and minimizing that space between where the ball is kicked and where it’s blocked.”
With two wins under the belt of USF coach Willie Taggart, games which were won by a margin less than seven points, it has been the special teams that have been a key ingredient to USF’s success.
Taggart said it was “expected.”
“We look for those guys to go out and make plays just like our offense and defense. We take pride in our special times,” Taggart said. “Our guys are really buying in to what Coach Holt is doing.”