COLUMN: USF’s win over Elon was huge, but highlighted the need to improve rushing defense ahead of Georgia Tech

It was a great win on Saturday for USF football.

Blake Barnett looks to be the real deal. Randall St. Felix might be the explosive receiver that USF will need to replace Marquez Valdes-Scantling, its top receiver last season.

But before we start claiming national championships like those in Orlando, let’s keep things in perspective.

It’s still early. And it was only Elon.

USF still has a monster task in front of it this weekend in the form of Georgia Tech.

But that’s not news to coach Charlie Strong and company.

“This is a big one for us,” Strong said. “We can’t go out there like we did last week — play well for probably three quarters of the game and then we go into the fourth quarter and we didn’t play well at all. When you feel like you’ve got a game won, that’s when you put guys away. We didn’t put that team away.”

Strong’s right. At halftime, the Bulls were outrushing Elon 70 yards to 58. By the end of the third, however, Elon led in rushing by 119 yards to 101, and 15 minutes later, it would finish 192 yards to 148 yards in favor of the team from FCS.

Actually, halftime was the only time the Bulls led in rushing at the end of a quarter. Elon led 57 yards to USF’s 21 after the first 15 minutes, thanks in large part to Malcolm Summers running the ball seemingly at will against the USF defense on the first drive of the game.

You can’t chalk that drive up to being garbage time. It very well may have ended in six points for Elon had Vincent Jackson not come down with his first career interception to end the opening drive of the season.

So, Elon ran the ball well on Saturday night. So what?

“Georgia Tech is an outstanding football team,” Strong said. “The thing they do is run the ball. If they can get the quarterback and fullback going in this game, then they’re going to feel like they can have some success.”

No, you didn’t stumble across a story from 50 years ago. Georgia Tech employs a triple-option offense, which uses the often-forgotten position in the backfield.

The Yellow Jackets ran for 452 yards in a 41-0 rout of their FCS opener, Alcorn State. Five different players rushed for over 50 yards each in Saturday’s game.

So, a team that runs the ball really well is coming into town the week after USF gave up almost 200 rushing yards to an FCS team.

That’s probably not great timing, but before chalking this one up as a loss and looking forward to the Illinois game on Sept. 15, it’s worth pointing out Strong has experience playing against the triple-option offense.

A lot of experience, actually.

Strong was the defensive line coach at Notre Dame from 1995-1998 and faced the triple-option frequently and is poised to do the same as head coach at USF.

“At Notre Dame, we played Navy, Army and Air Force,” Strong said. “We played all three of them in one year. You look at it now – the next four years, we have it. So we have Georgia Tech this year (and) next year. Then we play Navy two years after that.”

With that past experience, Strong knows what a defense has to do against the triple-option offense.

“The thing is, you’ve got to be assignment sound,” Strong said. “Whoever is responsible for the dive has to take the dive. It can’t be a guessing game where ‘I thought I saw.’ No.”

Georgia Tech isn’t going to take anyone on the USF roster by surprise, either. After all, this game has been on the schedule for quite some time.

“It’s definitely a challenge, but we’ve been working on this since the spring practices,” defensive end Kirk Livingstone said. “I’m actually glad that we did. I think if we didn’t coming into this week, it would be a lot thrown at you. But we’ve been practicing bits and bits since the spring. So, now I think we should be able to just flow into everything.”

Perhaps it’s too early for a ton of worrying just as it’s too early to have the Florida Legislature declare USF national champions.

Only one game has been played and it was a win.

It could have, in fact, should have, been a larger win.

But, still, it’s one more win than Florida State and Miami have.