As USF (2-6, 2-2) freshman quarterback Mike White heads into the second start of his career Saturday against Memphis (2-6, 0-4), his teammates have a sense of relief for the first time this season.
Coming off a season-high nine catches for 134 yards, junior receiver Andre Davis said he believes the Bulls can beat each of the remaining four teams on the schedule, starting with Memphis.
With a 0-4 record in the first part of the season, a 2-2 record in the second part and four games left, Davis said the team’s mantra is that it’s a fresh outlook with White under center.
“He’s always prepared, like he was the starter,” Davis said. “I felt like it was only a matter of time.”
White’s 26-for-41, 311-yard, two touchdown performance in the 35-23 loss to Houston Oct. 31 proved Davis right, and coach Willie Taggart said White doesn’t have to do much more than he did against Houston, but he “can’t be a one-game wonder,” either. Taggart said White just has to be consistent for the Bulls to reach their remaining goals.
If the Bulls were to win the final four games and end the regular season with six wins, they’d be bowl eligible, which is a goal they’ve carried throughout the year but one that has been revitalized, according to sophomore defensive back Kenneth Durden.
“We’re very excited about Mike White,” he said. “We’re still thinking about ‘going bowling,’ but it’s one game at a time.”
After taking over for senior quarterback Bobby Eveld, White stepped into a huddle with just one other freshman starter. Taggart said players don’t need to be seniors to be leaders, but a quarterback is expected to be a leader, something Davis said took White a moment to showcase but has been a welcome addition to the huddle.
“You could tell Mike was a little nervous at first, but now he brings the energy to the offense that we need,” Davis said. “Coach said we need somebody to make a joke sometimes so we’re not all intense in the huddle.”
White and Davis will get further help on the offensive side of the ball with the return of senior running back Marcus Shaw to full health. Shaw admitted last week he was around 90 percent against Houston and wasn’t able to make cuts he normally would, but Durden said Shaw is running full speed and making his signature moves in practice now.
While Taggart said he thinks Shaw is trying to have the best four games of his career against the remaining opponents, it might be a tough challenge, starting Saturday. Memphis is 27th in the nation in scoring defense (21.9 points per game) and 17th best in yardage (338.6).
Taggart said the Bulls and Tigers are in similar positions, as the Tigers are in the second season with their coaching staff and the Bulls are in their first. Taggart said Memphis has been in every game they’ve played. The Tigers haven’t lost a game by more than 14 points, but have failed to grab a conference win while USF has two.
On the defensive side of the ball, senior end Ryne Giddins said the Bulls have to keep their foot on the gas pedal in the second half of games after Taggart said the defense didn’t tackle well enough against Houston. Defensive coaches have emphasized all 11 players running to the ball this week to prevent big plays.
“It sounds repetitive, but No. 1 is stopping the explosive plays,” defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said. “If we have an Achilles’ heel right now, it’s giving up one to five explosive plays that are the difference between a win and a loss.”
Bresnahan said Memphis seems to have simplified its offense lately and become more effective.
“They’ve got a dynamite running back who loves to cut back, some speed on the edge and a quarterback whose big, extends plays and is tough to get down,” Bresnahan said.
USF faces Memphis at 7 p.m. in Raymond James Stadium.