(If you won't be at the stadium tonight, look for TV/Internet streaming information in the GameThread, coming up about 30 minutes before the game. Then hang around to chat with us, whether you're at the game or at home.)
Exactly nine months after their 2011 season ended in bitter disappointment, the USF football team returns to Raymond James Stadium looking to start a season of atonement. That season kicks off against the Chattanooga Mocs, from the FCS Southern Conference, at 7:00pm tonight.
The Bulls return an experienced, talented team. B.J. Daniels returns for his fourth year as a starter, surrounded by nearly all of his backs and receivers from 2011. On defense, eight of USF's top 10 tacklers from last year are back, including the entire linebacker corps. In total, 17 starters return from a hard-luck 5-7 team that lost five games by less than a touchdown. The Mocs also return 17 starters from a 5-6 team last year. Like USF, they had a string of close losses -- in fact, three of their defeats last year were by identical 28-27 scores.
Terrell Robinson is the Mocs' new starting quarterback. Although he only appeared in six games, he threw for six touchdowns, ran for a team-leading five, and won the Southern Conference's 2011 Freshman of the Year award. Unlike their other quarterbacks, Robinson was much more of a running threat, averaging 15 carries per game. Along with sophomore tailback Marquis Green (a SoCon All-Freshman team member) and senior J.J. Jackson, Chattanooga returns their three top rushers from last year. The Mocs may have to rely on the run, at least early in the season, after losing two of their top three receivers (seniors Joel Bradford and Sloan Allison). However, Marlon Anthony is a 6'5" wideout who caught four touchdown passes last year and may cause some matchup problems.
On defense, two players need to be accounted for. One is linebacker Wes Dothard, who led the team with 15.5 tackles for loss and was fourth in FCS with five forced fumbles last year. The other is left defensive end Josh Williams, a preseason FCS All-American who had 9.5 sacks last year, making him the Mocs' all-time sack leader with a total of 21.5. New left tackle Darrell Williams' first starting assignment will be to slow down the 6'2", 235-pound senior. Overall, Chattanooga forced 26 turnovers last year, and led the SoCon in total defense (305.3 ypg allowed), scoring defense, and passing defense (second in FCS in yards per game and fifth in passing efficiency defense). They also held opponents to just 33% on third down.
A few keys to the game after the jump:
Although one SoCon team has already claimed a win over FBS competition this weekend (McNeese State over Middle Tennessee), this shouldn't be too difficult a challenge for USF. I anticipate the Mocs trying to control the ball with their group of runners in an attempt to shorten the game, but the Bulls' speedy front seven should help keep them in check. Unless Robinson has become a much bigger passing threat, the Bulls can bring eight into the box to help slow down the run.
On offense, the main focus should be on neutralizing Josh Williams. Chattanooga's run defense was mediocre last year, and USF may need to rely on Daniels and Demetris Murray if the Mocs' pass defense is as strong as it was in 2011. Another area of vulnerability may be on special teams -- the Mocs had three kicks blocked last year, and the Bulls have blocked a punt against each of their last three FCS opponents.
The goal should be to try and gain as safe a lead as possible as soon as possible, then get the starters out of the game without being injured and save them for next Saturday's game at altitude against Nevada.