No. 21 USF returns to Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night against UConn in search for its seventh victory in as many tries and equal its best start in program history.
The Bulls (6-0, 2-0), a team that scores an average 35 points per game, should have no trouble securing its seventh victory against the Huskies (1-5, 0-3), who allow nearly 54 points per game.
“We have eight games left and five are on the road,” coach Charlie Strong said. “So we’re not going to get to come home that much and homecoming with Connecticut is going to be big for us. Whenever we get a chance to play in front of our home crowd we need to play well.”
USF will play games in the coming weeks against No. 20 Cincinnati and No. 10 UCF in November. Strong has his team focused and doesn’t see the matchup with UConn as a trap game.
“You know the guys are going to look down the road, but just try to focus,” Strong said. “This is a one-game season, we have to focus on this game, stay locked in. It’s UConn guys, we have to go play well.”
The Bulls have struggled to piece together a complete game on both sides of the ball. After three quarters, the team was behind or tied on the scoreboard in four of the last five games.
Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert wants his team to focus on individual assignments and scoring earlier in games.
“Just being cleaner on our execution, you know, continue to focus at each position and each guy going out and executing at a high level,” Gilbert said. “Those are things we are focused on right now. We need to go out and do it at a beginning of a game.”
Quarterback Blake Barnett is coming off a lackluster 17-for-39 passing performance, but came through with a big fourth-quarter drive, connecting with Tyre McCants on a 32-yard reception in the last moments to set up a Coby Weiss game-winning kick.
“I did not play anything close to my best game on Friday,” Barnett said. “I will be the first to admit that. I really needed to step up and I’m just glad the guys stayed behind me and we were able to pull it out in the end.”
Barnett wants to develop a pace that puts pressure on the Huskies for four quarters.
“Everything starts with the quarterback,” Barnett said. “We are the tempo of the offense, we are the leader so you know, it’s my job to get them going, to make the right decisions, to do my part.”
The coaching staff has worked hard to establish a winning culture and mindset inside the program which has paid dividends with a fast start to the season.
“From the time we got here these players have bought into, you know, our coaching style and the way we want to run the program,” defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. “It’s a testament to the program and the players that we are 6-0 and trying to get to 7-0.”
The quest to continue the success started before the regular season even began. The offseason preparation has instilled the work ethic needed to build a winning culture.
“That’s how we train them through the summer,” Jean-Mary said. “We like to push them in the offseason. It’s always a mental grind. You can see that in our fourth quarter comebacks. I think the more well-conditioned team has been the team that’s won the game.”
Hard work and dedication on the practice field has led to the Bulls success and the mental aspect is just as important as the physical.
“There is no substitute for hard work. Coach Strong is a no-nonsense guy,” Jean Mary said. “He draws a hard line.”
UConn averages a dismal 20 points per game offensively, ranked 123rd in the nation. The average loss this season for the Huskies has been by 30 points.
UConn is the opponent, at least for this week, that stands in the way of a dream, perfect season. Putting together four quarters of solid football is something Strong is waiting for from his team.
“For us to be really, really good, we have to play four quarters,” Strong said. “It’s not every time you’re going to be able to come back.”
The Bulls host the Huskies on Saturday night at 7 p.m.