Defense looks to keep hot start going against SMU

USF’s defense leads the nation in turnovers forced with 11. KJ Sails, pictured here against South Carolina State on Sept. 14, leads the team with three takeaways. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

If a team ever has to play a hot offense, it may as well be when the defense is playing well.

USF (1-2) faces the task of stopping the No. 17 offense in FBS when it faces SMU (4-0) to open AAC play at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday at 4 p.m. (TV: ESPNU/Radio: WHNZ-AM 1250).

The Mustangs’ offense, fresh off a 41-38 win against then-No. 25 TCU last weekend, comes in averaging 514 yards and 5.5 offensive touchdowns through four games.

But it’s about to face a revitalized USF defense that’s leading the nation in turnovers forced (11) and fumble recoveries (7) and is No. 2 in turnover margin (2.00). The Bulls’ defense is also coming off a record-setting performance after taking the ball away a program-best eight times against South Carolina State on Sept. 14.

“It’s fun to be a part of a great defense — an attacking defense,” graduate defensive back Devin Studstill said. “Everybody’s flying — everybody’s flying for their brothers. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Coming off a bye week also helps a USF defense that has already faced the now-No. 8 team in the nation in Wisconsin and another Power Five opponent in Georgia Tech in Week 2.

“You always appreciate bye weeks, because no matter what time of the year it is, you always have guys that are a little banged up, that might not have been able to play in the following weekend,” defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. “We had a couple guys like that on offense and defense, and I think for the most part, everybody’s going to be healthy going into SMU.”

Meanwhile, coach Charlie Strong will see a familiar face in the form of SMU quarterback Shane Buechele. The graduate transfer, currently in his first year at SMU, started 12 games as a true freshman at Texas in 2016, Strong’s last season with the Longhorns.

Jean-Mary, who served as Texas’ recruiting coordinator under Strong, is familiar with Buechele as well.

“I think we’ve played a couple of really good quarterbacks so far this year, and he’s probably the best of the lot,” Jean-Mary said, “but we have to go out there and do our best.”

Buechele has already thrown for seven touchdowns and more than 1,100 yards. Since SMU uses short rushes to set up the long throw, the Bulls will have to limit Buechele’s ability to complete the “home run” pass, according to Strong.

“They’re going to take their shots,” Strong said. “We can’t give them the shots because it’s one of those offenses where they’ll run the ball, they’ll run the ball, then they’ll take a deep throw on you, and we’ve just got to be patient enough where coverage wise, we’re not misaligned where we can run with their receivers and cover.” 

In addition to Buechele, Jean-Mary and the Bulls face a balanced SMU offense — the Mustangs average almost 300 yards passing and more than 215 yards rushing. But the run is a critical part of SMU’s “Air Raid” offense as it sets up the rest of the attack. 

“They’re committed to it,” Jean-Mary said. “They’re not a team that runs to get big plays. They’re dedicated to running the ball, and they’re OK with 2-and 3-yard gains because they really set up their passing game through their running game.”

USF’s defense may have its work cut out for it this weekend, but it’s good having a team with an offense like SMU’s in the AAC, according to Strong.

“You need teams that play well, because with the teams playing well, it makes the whole league look good.”