The 2013 USF-Houston game on a Halloween Thursday was by far the most entertaining on the Bulls schedule. In a battle of true freshman quarterbacks, Mike White and John O'Korn played some fantastic football and gave both teams plenty of hope for the future. White was 26-47 for 311 yards with 2 TD's and an INT, and O'Korn was 22-27 for 263 yards and 3 TD's.
It was great television, and if not for John McDaid and his officiating crew yet again USF might have been victorious. An absolutely brutal offensive pass interference call on Andre Davis negated a 4th quarter go-ahead touchdown for the Bulls, and it all fell apart afterwards. The Bulls ended up with 19 penalties for 170 yards in the 35-23 loss, but at the time ChuckyCrater and I called it one of the most encouraging losses in program history. It breathed some life into a somewhat moribund USF program, and gave some hope for the future.
And now exactly one year and one day later, both starting quarterbacks from that game have been benched (and one Bench'ed, as it were) for the rematch. Exactly no one saw that coming, but it also seems these are two programs heading in opposite directions as of late.
O'Korn was benched for terrible play midway through the C. Florida game this season, and Greg Ward Jr. has been a revelation ever since. Despite a fumble 6 inches short of the goal line that kept the Cougars from a monster comeback win over the Knights, he's won back-to-back games at Memphis and via a blowout over Temple. He's been efficient (57-81 580 yds 3 TD's 1 INT) and much more mobile than O'Korn could ever be (192 yards rushing, 2 rushing TD's).
Even with the loss to the Knights, the Cougars (4-3, 2-1 AAC) don't play ECU this season and have the easy half of their schedule remaining. 7-1 and at least a share of an AAC title looms as possible.
They also have what appears to be a bright future with a sophomore in Ward and playmakers like juniors Deontay Greenberry (36 catches, 465 yards, 3 TD's), Kenneth Farrow 76 carries, 437 yards, 4 TD's) and Ryan Jackson (62 carries, 338 yards, 3 TD's).
Bulls Country isn't feeling nearly as optimistic after a 3-5 start, and with Mike White dropping on the depth chart this week for the Wheel of Fate That Is Steven Bench. Bench is certainly more athletic and mobile than White, and showed last week against Cincinnati he can make some throws and lead successful drives. But he's also prone to the OMG WTF Turnover, and has shown what could politely be called "questionable" decision making during his limited USF career.
Defensively Houston is improving, ranking 21st in the country by allowing just 4.7 yards per play. USF on the other hand has slipped to 94th at 6.0 yards per play allowed following a brutal performance last week against Cincinnati who ran up a school record 590 yards. Injuries are an issue for any team at this time of year, but that excuse only holds so much water: USF seems so vanilla in their scheme that they are victims to the pass to the flat constantly.
Houston also is 4th in the country in takeaways, forcing 2.8 turnovers per contest. USF has also been solid (2.1, 25th), but the Bulls most likely will need a couple extra possessions to have a chance to win. The spread is Cougars by 7.5 and 9 depending on where you look. That's two possessions you need to find on defense or special teams to have a chance to win.
For Houston, this is a chance to keep the hope of a conference title moving forward. For USF, it's a chance to salvage an opportunity for their first bowl game in four years. And that chasm in hope between these teams 366 days after their last matchup is what USF would like to close and Houston wants to widen.