Memphis may have racked up a program-record 215 points in its first four games this season, but that hasn’t made fourth-year coach Justin Fuente any less circumspect about facing USF’s defense on Friday.
The Tigers, who are 4-0 for the first time since 1961, will come to Raymond James Stadium ranked sixth in the nation in total offense and ninth in passing behind the leadership of junior quarterback Paxton Lynch. The Bulls are 19th in total defense, led by sophomore lineman Deadrin Senat’s team-high 19 tackles.
“To me, when you just watch the film and you look at their front seven, it’s pretty impressive,” Fuente said during Monday’s AAC coaches teleconference. “They’ve just got size and athleticism with those front guys — and some depth. They’ve just got some really good players down there and they’ve done a good job with their scheme.”
Aiding the Bulls in their nationally televised showdown with the defending conference co-champs will be the return of all three of their starting linebackers for a full game.
Senior Tashon Whitehurst and junior Nigel Harris returned from their two-game suspension for violating unspecified rules at Maryland on Sept. 19, but middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez had to sit out the first half of the 35-17 loss for a targeting ejection against Florida State the week before.
Coach Willie Taggart said they will be key in USF’s game plan of limiting explosive plays and keeping Memphis’ offense in check. The Tigers scored 58 points in a win over Cincinnati on Thursday and have scored 40 or more points in six straight games, the longest active streak in Division I-A.
“We’ve got to limit the big plays,.They live off the big, explosive plays,” Taggart said. “We’ve got to make them drive the ball all the way down the field and score. It’s really important not to give up the big play, and that’s something we’ve lacked the last couple games.”
Offensively, USF might welcome the test against the Tigers’ defense, which currently sits 110th nationally after allowing Cincinnati to set a new program record with 752 total yards in last Thursday’s 53-46 victory. By comparison, the Bulls (1-2) haven’t come close to that number since they racked up 765 yards in a victory over Florida A&M in 2011.
But with an additional few days of preparation coming off the bye week and some continued signs of improvement from sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers (seven total touchdowns and three interceptions in three starts), Taggart is confident his team is up to the task.
“We’re ready to roll,” Taggart said. “We’ve got a big-time challenge with our football team this Friday in our home stadium, and our guys are really excited for the challenge we have in front of us.”