Entering Saturday night’s matchup with UConn (3-3, 1-2), no one on the USF roster or coaching staff knows quite as much about the Huskies as offensive coordinator T.J. Weist.
Weist, now in his first year with the Bulls (5-1, 2-0), was the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Connecticut in 2013. After the departure of UConn’s then-head coach Paul Pasqualoni following an 0-4 start, Weist took over as the interim coach for the remainder of the ’13 season.
Although he won his last three games as the Huskies’ coach, UConn elected not to retain Weist after finishing with a 3-5 record.
One of those losses, his first game as a head coach, was a 13-10 loss to USF.
Despite that loss, the Huskies have played the Bulls tough in their 13-game series, with neither team winning by more than eight points since a 38-16 USF win in 2006.
“I think there is a mutual respect of toughness,” Weist said. “Me being on both sides and at Cincinnati, I’ve seen both programs from the outside. I know the conference fairly well, and think there is a mutual respect of toughness.
“I think as a coach, you respect other teams that play tough. South Florida has always played tough and athletic. UConn has always been a tough football team … maybe not as athletic as the more southern teams or as fast, but they’ve made up for with it with smart, tough football players.”
The Bulls will once again be challenged Saturday by another hardy pack of Huskies, this time led offensively by junior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs and senior wide receiver Noel Thomas.
Shirreffs, who transferred to Connecticut after his freshman year at NC State, is a dual threat for UConn. Having eclipsing 2,000 yards passing on the season, Bryant has also rushed the ball 102 times (251 yards and two scores) already this season, tied for the most by any quarterback in the AAC with Navy’s Will Worth.
After facing the AAC’s top receiver in East Carolina’s Zay Jones last week, the Bulls will once again be tasked with stopping another elite AAC receiver in Thomas.
Thomas leads all UConn receivers with 55 receptions and seems to be Shirreffs’ favorite target this season, having caught 39 more passes than the next closest Huskies receiver.
Last year, Shirreffs threw for 365 yards and rushed for another 100 against the Bulls.
Matching up with Thomas will likely be junior cornerback Deatrick Nichols, who was paired against Jones in USF’s 38-22 win over ECU.
Even if he won’t be the one defending the Huskies top receiver, Nichols is confident in whomever lines up against Jones in the Bulls’ secondary.
“However the game flows,” Nichols said. “I like any of my corners or safeties to cover the guy, because we all get the job done. (Thomas) is a good guy … he finds a way to come down with the ball, he finds a way to catch the ball … he’s just a good athlete.”
Defensively, the Huskies are led by junior defensive tackle Cole Ormsby, who is fifth in the AAC with four sacks.
In their meeting last year, the Bulls escaped East Hartford with a 28-20 win over UConn. The Bulls established the run, as they will look to do again Saturday after rushing for 275 yards against the Huskies in 2015.
The Bulls are 8-5 all-time against the Huskies, winning the last four matchups. Kickoff for Saturday night’s game with the Huskies is at 7 at Raymond James Stadium.