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Preview: Bulls defense aims to contain Blazers’ standout quarterback

The Bulls look to win back-to-back conference road games for the first time since 2017. ORACLE PHOTO/ARIANNA RENICK

USF football will look to record its best start in conference play since 2018 in its matchup against UAB at Protective Stadium on Saturday.

The Bulls (3-2, 2-0 AAC) are 3.5-point favorites against the Blazers (1-4, 0-1 AAC). 

It will be the third time the respective programs have played one another. The last time was in 2004, where USF won 45-20.

Here are a few points to consider ahead of Saturday’s game.

Defending the pass

The Bulls’ defense has been respectable throughout this season, but their pass defense is an area of emphasis. They allow 279.6 passing yards per game, the 10th most in the country.

In their Sept. 23 win against Rice, they gave up 491 passing yards. Owls quarterback JT Daniels completed 27 of his 40 passes for a career-high 432 yards and three touchdowns.

The Bulls’ upcoming opponent similarly relies on their passing. 

The Blazers’ offense is led by Jacob Zeno, who averages 288.4 passing yards. He also ranks third nationally in completions per game with 31.4 and fourth in completion percentage at 75.5%. Zeno is on pace to set all of UAB’s significant single-season passing records.

Bulls coach Alex Golesh said Zeno’s quick and accurate passing could pose a threat to the defense.

“[Zeno is] an experienced older quarterback that understands what he has around him and doesn’t take sacks. The scheme allows him not to take sacks. He’s very aware of what’s going on,” Golesh said. 

“They do a really good job of getting the ball to playmakers in space and he does an incredible job of delivering quickly and accurately so that’s the challenge.”

Zeno’s top targets are junior and freshman receivers Tejhaun Palmer and Amare Thomas. Palmer has recorded a team-high 223 receiving yards. Thomas leads the team with 23 receptions and has totaled 227 receiving yards.

Over his last two contests, Thomas has caught 17 passes for 159 yards and one touchdown.

USF’s run game vs UAB’s opportunistic defense

The Blazers’ defense has totaled eight fumble recoveries this season, which ties for most in the country. Senior linebacker Damon Miller and junior defensive end Michael Fairbanks tie for first on the team with three fumble recoveries each.

Golesh said that UAB’s defense will be the biggest unit they’ve played since their week three matchup against Alabama.

“They’re really athletic on the back end and their linebackers can run. So it’ll be a challenge for us in order to be able to go run the football and establish from the pass protection standpoint be able to take the passing game to another level,” he said.

In their last two games, the Bulls rushed for 259 yards since averaging 241 yards over the first three games of the season. 

USF will have a chance to establish its rushing attack against the eighth-worst rushing defense in the country. UAB allows 204 yards per game on the ground.

Setting the tone early

USF showed great resilience in its road win against Navy. After ending the first quarter down 14-0, the Bulls went on a 44-9 scoring run.

However, the early deficit they found themselves in was self-inflicted. An early fumble on a punt return and a turnover on downs led directly to those midshipmen scores.

In their next time out with the Blazers, getting on the board first could make it easier for the Bulls to establish their offense in a road environment.