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Who the Heck is Pitt Playing: USF Edition

We're coming up on Week 5 in our opponent previews. Next up is Pitt's first Big East opponent in the 2011 season.

Who the heck are we playing? The South Florida Bulls

When and where are we playing? September 29th at Heinz Field. Kickoff will be at 8 PM. The game will be shown on ESPN and ESPN 3D.

Why should I care? It's Pitt's Big East opener and it's at home.

Have we played these guys before? Being conference opponents, yes. Pitt beat USF last season in Tampa in an ugly 17-10 win. Pitt leads the all-time series 5-3.

What conference do they play in? The Big East, obviously

How did they do last season? The Bulls were a respectable 8-5, highlighted by a win over Miami late in the season and a bowl victory over Clemson.

Who's the coach? Skip Holtz, formerly of the East Carolina Pirates.

How many starters return? 4 on offense, 6 on defense, 2 punter/kickers

What's the offense like? The Bulls offense was offensive (and I mean that in the bad way) in 2010. They finished 105th in total offense last season at just over 309 yards/game. That isn't that big of a shock when you think about it. B.J. Daniels is a good runner, but a thrower he is not. And the Bulls wide receivers weren't exactly all-conference to begin with. We see this in the stats, where USF finished at 101st in passing offense at 164 yards/game. If the Bulls had a calling card on offense, it was the ground game - although that, too, wasn't among the most dominant in college football. The Bulls finished 71st in rushing offense at 145 yards/game. Because of the poor offense, the Bulls were often in defensive battles each game, with the Bulls scoring an average of 24 points/game - good for 85th in FBS. But, with the Big East being down last year, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing, despite the Bulls being 3-4 in conference. Will these numbers improve? Well, for the Bulls' sake, they better. With Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen now joining the conference, the Bulls are going to need to score if they want to stay in contention for a BCS bid.

The quarterback position has been an area to watch for the Bulls. Ever since Matt Grothe, the school's best QB in their short football history (they've only been around since 1997), graduated, the position just hasn't been the same. Gone are the days of prolific passing. In their place are days with a quarterback who can run, and, with better receivers, could be a better passer as well. B.J. Daniels is the Bulls' starting QB heading into the season and that seems unlikely to change. However, as I said above, if the Bulls are to improve in 2011, Daniels has to get better. He threw for 11 TDs and 13 INTs in 2010 and the latter must go down for the Bulls to win the Big East while the former needs to go up. Should Holtz decide to go another direction, Bobby Eveld is a capable backup QB, who helped USF get their first win over Miami last season.

The running back position is fairly deep for USF in 2011. Gone is leading rusher Moise Plancher, but Demetrious Murray, the team's second leading rusher at 533 yards, should be up to the task of filling in for Plancher. After Murray, though, there's a lot of unproven talent. However, there are numbers and that's what makes this unit the best on the offensive side of the ball in my opinion. USF's post-spring depth chart lists Darrell Scott, a transfer from Colorado who sat out last season, as the number two back. Marcus Shaw and Bradley Battles also figure to play a role in the rushing attack for USF in 2011. At fullback, redshirt junior Armando Sanchez, who last season played linebacker, is listed as the starter.

The wide receivers, as I've said, haven't been the greatest for USF and it looks like that may continue in 2011. Gone is the leading receiver in Dontavia Bogan, but there is some potential. Being in Florida, there should be Florida speed on this roster and that it will get to the receiving corps. A name to watch for USF is junior Evan Landi, the team's second leading receiver from a year ago, who will be alongside sophomore Terrence Mitchell, a former CB. Senior Joel Miller will also play as a slot receiver when the Bulls are in three-receiver sets. Another name to watch is A.J. Love, who missed 2010 with a torn ACL. After that, there is little proven talent and this will probably cost the Bulls when they go against the better pass defenses on their schedule. 

The offensive line is the main unit to watch for the USF offense, where the Bulls must replace three starters - the headliner being multiple year starter at center Sampson Genus. Holtz hopes that redshirt senior Kevin McCaskill will be able to jump in and stay healthy because the Bulls don't really have another option at center. The two positions on the line where the Bulls return starters are at the guard spots, with redshirt senior Chaz Hine at right guard and redshirt senior Jeremiah Warren at left. Junior Mark Popek reclaimed his old spot at left tackle after losing his starting spot in 2010. Right tackle is one spot to watch, and while redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon won the starting job, his lack of experience will be a question mark heading into the start of the season. After the starters, there isn't a lot of experience, so the hopes are that the unit remains healthy in 2011.

The offense for South Florida has to get better, because the two main competitors to USF's chance at a BCS berth, Pitt and West Virginia, have new offensive-minded coaches that could light up opposing defenses ... including USF's. If that happens, the offense needs to put up points to keep the Bulls in the game. Year two under Skip Holtz should help the unit improve as there is better knowledge of his system. But whether the unit has improved enough will be the main question heading into 2011.

What about the defense? Where the offense struggled under Skip Holtz, the defense did not. That was a reason why USF won eight games last season. The Bulls finished 17th in total defense in 2010, allowing just under 318 yards/game. USF finished tied for 22nd in rushing defense and 24th in passing defense. What's not to like about this defense in 2011? Very little. They forced turnovers, got to the quarterback, and kept the other team from scoring (although if you have to find a fault, it would have to be the red zone defense - but even that is not a glaring weakness).

The line is probably the biggest area of concern on defense if only because All-Big East DT Terrell McClain has moved on. The inside of the line will depend on senior Keith McCaskill and junior Cory Grissom, who haven't started a game for USF, but have shown potential to be very good. They'll be backed up by redshirt freshman Todd Chandler and sophomores Luke Sager and Demi Thompson. It's at defensive end where the Bulls are deep, very deep. Patrick Hampton and Ryne Giddins will be the starters, after serving as backups last season. Backups include redshirt senior Claude Davis, redshirt sophomore Julius Forte, and junior Anthony Hill - all who could fill in at end for the Bulls and the defense would not miss a beat. 

The unit of strength in this defense would be the linebackers unit, where the Bulls return two of three starters. First is middle linebacker Sam Barrington, who is the leader of the defense. Next to him on the weakside is sophomore DeDe Lattimore, who played well last season as a freshman starter. On the opposite side is where there is a position battle between redshirt freshman Reshard Cliett and senior Curtis Weatherspoon. Cliett was listed as the post-spring starter, but Weatherspoon could easily fill in nicely for the Bulls.

The secondary, if you were to rank the units on this team, would be 1b to the linebackers. There is a load of experience here as well as young talent. Junior Kayvon Williams and redshirt senior Quenton Washington are the starting corners while Jon Lejiste and Jerrell Young are the safeties. The unit combined to intercept 15 passes last season and, as I stated earlier, led one of the top pass defenses in the country. Expect similar production in 2011. The battle between the CBs and speedy wideouts Devin Street and Cam Saddler will be one to watch in the game against South Florida.

This defense will be what keeps South Florida in games should the offense fail. It did so last season and I fully expect them to do so again, barring injuries of course.

What about the special teams? The Bulls return both punter and kicker from a year ago, although they'll use a new starter at punter. Chris Veron, a redshirt freshman, will take the role of punter from redshirt junior Justin Brockhaus-Kahn. Redshirt junior Maikon Bonani will take the role of placekicker.

Prediction? I like the Panthers to win this one. The game is in Pittsburgh and although this one is coming on a short week right after the Notre Dame game while USF faces UTEP the week before, USF's lack of offense is why I like Pitt to win this one. I think the HIGH OCTANE offense will be able to put points on the board and, until proven otherwise, I don't see the Bulls scoring enough on Pitt's defense. Pitt wins 31-20.

Interested in learning more about USF? Make sure to visit "The Toughest Blog in America" Voodoo Five.

*As always, stats are courtesy of the NCAA