USF has two games left in the regular season — and the 2019 season as a whole if it fails to win those two contests.
The Bulls (4-6, 2-4) play No. 18 Memphis (9-1, 5-1) on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium (4 p.m. | TV: ESPNU | Radio: WDAE-AM 620), a team with a wickedly good offense.
The Tigers, third in scoring offense in the conference with an average of 41.5 points, are led by a prolific quarterback and running back.
Redshirt freshman tailback Kenneth Gainwell is second in the AAC in rushing, averaging 116 yards and 1.2 touchdowns.
“Oh, the freshman is a really good player,” USF coach Charlie Strong said. “He’s not very big, but he’s very powerful and strong. He can run behind his pads. [He] breaks a lot of tackles. We’re going to have to tackle well to get him on the ground. … He is a really outstanding player.”
Tigers redshirt junior quarterback Brady White, who averages 285.2 yards passing, is one of the most efficient passers in the league, with a completion rate of 67.4 percent. He has also thrown the fewest interceptions in the AAC with five.
Overall, he is composed under pressure.
“Obviously a veteran guy in White,” defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. “Doesn’t get rattled easy. Kind of like a coach on the field, but a very talented coach on the field.”
But USF’s pass defense is the best in the league. The Bulls have 10 interceptions this season and allow 173.2 passing yards per game.
Despite having a top passing defense, the Bulls have to be able to match the Memphis offense.
“It’s going to be a big-time challenge,” Jean-Mary said. “They don’t have many weaknesses, and we’re going to have to have one of our better defensive performances.”
The Bulls’ defense was at its best in the first half of last Saturday’s 20-17 loss to Cincinnati, according to senior defensive end Kirk Livingstone.
“We played a stellar first half, probably our best this year,” Livingstone said Saturday.
But the Bulls’ defense gave way in the second half, allowing 20 points. But it wasn’t as bad as the score makes it seem, according to Jean-Mary.
“We missed two tackles,” Jean-Mary said. “We’re a single-high aggressive defense. And when you’re high risk, you’re going to give up some things. But we’re also high reward. … All three [Cincinnati] scores involved a missed tackle, if you include the [game-winning] field goal.”
But it will likely take a fully healthy defense, which the Bulls might not have.
Linebacker Patrick Macon, the Bulls’ leading tackler with 67, is still recovering from an ankle injury and is not guaranteed to play.
“It’s an ankle, and you know how it is,” Jean-Mary said. “It’s not a high ankle sprain, but it’s right there in that mid area of his lower leg. So it’s not the easiest to come back from, but he’s a tough kid.
“He’s actually practiced a little this week, and he’s been with the trainers, rehabbing 24/7, so we’re hoping he’s going to be available Saturday.”
A native of Memphis, Macon has a little extra motivation to play this week, according to Strong.
“He wants to play because he’s from Memphis and he knows a lot of those guys,” Strong said. “I think he’ll do everything that he can to get back to work.”