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Bulls’ offense gets set for showdown with Cincinnati

Jordan McCloud was sacked nine times against Temple last Thursday. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

It’s safe to say USF’s offense hasn’t been what it set out to be at the beginning of the season.

The promise of an offense reborn under first-year coordinator Kerwin Bell is a distant echo. 

Now, in the heart of a November gauntlet, the Bulls are second-to-last in total offense in the AAC, with an average of 346 yards per game. They sit ahead of UConn, which is 0-6 in the conference.

With an underperforming offense, USF (4-5, 2-3) faces potentially its biggest challenge this season — AAC East-leading No. 17 Cincinnati (8-1, 5-0) on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium. The Bearcats’ only loss this season came against now-No. 2 Ohio State.

“If we can block the box and give our quarterback a chance and give our running game a chance to get established, then we’re going to have a chance,” coach Charlie Strong said.

But blocking is something the Bulls have failed to do well this season. 

USF is 128-of-130 in the country for sacks allowed, with an average of more than four per game. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud was sacked nine times against Temple last Thursday.

Sophomore offensive tackle Donovan Jennings, who Bell called one of the best tackles in the league, is out with an ankle injury he suffered in that same game.

Jennings’ absence will shift the way the offensive line shapes up, according to Bell.

“Marcus Norman might go over and play some of the left side a little bit,” Bell said. “We’ve got [Jarrett] Hopple … he’ll play some. We’re just trying to find the right combination.”

Another player who may sit Saturday out is freshman quarterback Jah’Quez Evans, who is still out with a concussion he suffered before halftime against East Carolina on Oct. 26.

Evans ran for 99 yards and two touchdowns in the 45-20 victory and has become an essential part of the Bulls’ offense.

“We’re hopeful that if they clear him [Wednesday] or [Thursday], then we might still have a chance at him,” Bell said. “He’s another one that adds something to us on the offensive side of the ball, so we’re hoping to get him out there, but … he didn’t practice [Wednesday].”

Injury woes cut deep, but junior tight end Jacob Mathis is fully healthy after missing last Thursday’s game with the flu. His return is vital, according to Bell.

“We sort of had that combination with him and [Mitch] Wilcox … they sort of complement each other,” Bell said. “[Mathis] lost some weight, but he’s running really well. He’s back at full strength so it’s going to be good to have him back.”

The Bulls’ offense will have to be at its best against the Bearcats’ defense, which is ranked third in the conference.

Junior safety Darrick Forrest leads the Bearcats and is fourth in the conference in total tackles (73). Another defensive threat is sophomore safety Ja’von Hicks, who leads the conference with four interceptions.

“All three levels of their defense are pretty good,” Bell said. “Their front seven is really good, their linebackers play fast and their secondary really gets up and pressures you.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The key to combating the Bearcats’ beastly defense is to efficiently and conservatively move the ball down the field, according to Bell.

“Listen, we’ve got to come out and be as physical as we can. We’ve got to stay at a good down and distance against these guys because they’re really good,” Bell said. “If we stay in good down and distance then we have a chance to stay balanced and move the football.”

USF’s struggling offense could face a daunting challenge against one of the best defensive teams the Bulls have faced all season. 

With six being the magic number for bowl eligibility, the Bulls must win at least two out of their final three games.

The odds are statistically against the Bulls, but Strong’s goal persists — to get the players, namely the seniors, to a bowl game.

“We’ve got to get to a bowl game,” Strong said. “They see that in front of them and they’ll come back to work.”

The Bulls and Bearcats kick off Saturday at Raymond James Stadium at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network and broadcast on WDAE-AM 620.