Friday’s game against UCF will mark the end of the 2021 season for the USF football team, a campaign highlighted by the first win over an FBS program in the Jeff Scott era and the arrival of freshman quarterback Timmy McClain.
The Bulls’ (2-9, 1-6 AAC) record isn’t pretty, and they’re coming off a huge loss at the hands of Tulane on Nov. 20, but defeating the Knights (7-4, 4-3 AAC) in Orlando and taking hold of the head-to-head series would allow USF to head into the offseason with some momentum.
“There’s going to be a lot of energy [and] a lot of emotion, which always comes in rivalry games,” Scott said. “But what I’ve been telling our guys all week is, ‘Emotion and energy is not going to win this game on Friday. It may make one play for you or a couple, [but] ultimately it’s going to come down to whoever executes the best on that day.’”
A major change for USF heading is at the defensive coordinator spot, where Glenn Spencer was fired Sunday. Scott announced Tuesday linebackers coach Ernie Sims and special teams coordinator Daniel Da Prato would be splitting the defensive duties against the Knights.
Scott explained how the change in staff could actually be used to USF’s advantage, as UCF coach Gus Malzahn and his staff might not know what to expect.
“[Malzahn] looks at tendencies on us, and that’s why it’s going to be really important for our defensive staff [to do well],” Scott said. “We have a good opportunity this week with some new guys being in charge of [the defense] to change some things up, because he definitely likes to know what you’ll be in and what you’ve done in the past.
“I imagine the first half, the first quarter will be a little cat and mouse, back and forth, trying to figure out what each person is going to do. [It’s] the same thing for us offensively, maybe having a few different things then we’ve done. Every game is important, but I think good coaches always hold some things in their back pocket for that last one.”
Another unknown layer is who will start at quarterback for the Knights. Junior Dillon Gabriel broke his collarbone against Louisville on Sept. 17 and has yet to appear in a game since.
Gabriel was rumored to potentially come back this week, but Malzahn said Monday the quarterback has been “sick for the last two days, so I think [playing against USF is] going to be tough,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Freshman Mikey Keene, who has completed 64.7% of his passes for 1,471 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions in his nine appearances this season, has stepped in for Gabriel.
“I would have liked to have played [UCF] maybe Week 4 or Week 5 with this new freshman quarterback, turning the video on watching him the last three weeks, he’s very well coached, he knows where to go with the ball, he’s got a really good arm,” Scott said.
“They’re uber talented at wide receiver, that’s probably one of the concerns going in, just the speed that they have. … He knows how to get them the ball, they’re not worried about forcing the ball down the field and taking shots. He’s improved as the season has gone on and has really been playing well these last couple weeks.”
Scott admitted his team is not in a place it wants to be with its poor record, but also recognized how this will be the last time this group of players and coaches get to play together.
“I’m hoping [in the future] we’re going to be in the situation where we’re going into this game and we need to win it to be able to go to our conference championship game,” Scott said. “I’m hoping we get to that point at some point, and I feel like we will down the road.
“Right now, this is it, there is no tomorrow … You’ve got to really just enjoy that team and the 2021 South Florida Bulls. This will be the last game and the last week that we get to be together.”
The Bulls and Knights play in Orlando at the Bounce House on Friday at 3:30 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN and broadcast on 95.3/620 WDAE/iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.