After breaking a two-game losing streak with a win at Tulsa on Saturday, a win against Cincinnati would give the Bulls a reasonable shot at reaching a bowl game, which they haven’t accomplished in four years.
“It feels like that game (against Tulsa) was the game that catapults us to the next level,” sophomore linebacker Nigel Harris said. “It took us to the next step, knowing that we can do it.”
USF (3-4, 2-1) ended its trend of poor second-half performances by out-scoring Tulsa 31-3 in the final two quarters.
But despite the Bulls’ strong second half, their poor first half put them behind 27-7. Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said the key to playing a complete game comes down to limiting explosive plays.
“The big thing was the explosive plays,” Bresnahan said. “In the first half, I think we gave up five or six explosive plays and in the second half, it was one. That’s the big difference in the game. That’s how you hold them to field goal attempts and not touchdowns.”
Limiting explosive plays will be a difficult task for the Bulls on Friday, with Cincinnati ranked 38th in the nation for scoring.
The Bearcats have scored at least 30 points in four of their six games as a result of effective passing. Cincinnati ranks 12th in the nation in passing yards per game due to the success of sophomore quarterback Gunner Kiel.
Sophomore safety Nate Godwin said the Bearcats’ offense resembles what the Bulls have seen in the past two weeks.
“Just like Tulsa and just like ECU, they run the read option, they run the spread,” Godwin said. “They like to put you out wide and throw the ball deep. They throw curls and bubbles so open-field tackles need to be made — a lot of discipline and we just need to get to the ball.”
Kiel has thrown for 19 touchdowns and over 1,800 passing yards, but Cincinnati’s offense has lacked a strong running game, with no rusher recording 150 yards on the season.
Godwin said stopping Kiel comes down to how often the defense can make their presence felt on the sophomore quarterback.
“We have to hit him,” Godwin said. “He’s a good quarterback who makes good decisions, but we have to hit him. I think that any quarterback, once they get hit, they get frustrated. We
tattoo him and he gets frustrated, then he’ll make bad decisions.”
But while the Bearcats’ offense is ranked among the top teams in the nation, its defense has allowed more points per game than its offense has been able to score.
Before Cincinnati beat a winless SMU team last Saturday, it suffered three-straight losses of 20 or more points. In each of those three losses, Cincinnati gave up 40 or more points, which bodes well for the USF offense.
Sophomore quarterback Mike White had his breakout game of the season last week, throwing for three touchdowns and 272 yards.
The offense’s recent success has been tied to the return of senior receiver Andre Davis. Davis caught all three touchdown passes against Tulsa and finished with 154 receiving yards. He has caught four touchdowns in the two games since returning from injury.
Senior tight end Mike McFarland was excited about the return of Davis to the offense.
“He’s one of the greatest receivers that I’ve ever seen and he’s a fierce competitor that strives to get better every day,” McFarland said.
Harris said the Bulls’ recent offensive outburst has given life to the defense.
“Once the offense sparks, it gives us a flame,” Harris said. “The defense feeds off of energy on offense because we feel like if they score, all we have to do is stop them to win the game.”
USF will play at Cincinnati (3-3, 1-1) at 7 p.m. Friday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.