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Western Carolina Aftermath: Growing Pains

Observations and analysis from USF's season-opening win over Western Carolina.

As football fans-- or humans in general, really-- we want to see things move neatly and linearly. We see the mess that Skip Holtz left behind, and we see how efficiently Charlie Strong cleaned up Louisville when they were down (or, for a more relevant comparison, Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky), and we expect Taggart to follow that same exact blueprint here. Last year we took our lumps and went 2-10, we have the best recruits in the conference, he's engineered these turnarounds before...we're going bowling this year, right? We cringe when Western Carolina scores a garbage time touchdown to make the score a thoroughly unclean-looking 36-31, or when Marlon Mack's last carry of the day leaves him just a yard short of the school record for rushing yards.

Things don't work like that, especially when "things" refers to "football teams that literally failed to comprehend the sport of football on multiple occasions last season." Teams don't magically leap from not scoring an offensive touchdown against Rutgers to playing good football, not even after the benefit of an offseason and a pretty fantastic recruiting class. Taggart didn't do a ton of things right in 2013, but he did succeed in essentially burning Holtz's roster to the ground and preparing to start again, a process not-so-coincidentally similar to what USF athletics went through at the very same time.

But when you burn something down, it doesn't grow back from day one. You reach an absolute zero. That's where we're at right now. We have pieces-- a handful of talented freshmen on defense, a fantastic kicker and punter, Marlon Effing Mack, but we have just as many holes. We have no quarterback, a beat-up offensive line and a receiver playing corner leading a secondary that looks totally unprepared to face anything resembling a formidable passing attack. Heck, there are 19 new faces on the two-deep this season. That's just remarkable.

And as such, there are going to be growing pains. I'm not sure how many games USF will win this season-- just a few days ago I guessed four or five, but it'll almost certainly be less if the Bulls continue to play like they did against WCU, and it'll almost certainly be more if they continue to improve. Marlon Mack is not going to run for 100 yards every game, but he doesn't have to-- he's a true freshman, after all, and his young career, like that of this young team, is not going to move in a straight line. All we can hope for is that this team continues to improve and that by the end of the season, the ups have outweighed the downs.

Some stray observations after re-watching the game:

- Mike White was really bad. There's no other way to spin this. He settled in a bit in the second half and made a couple nice deep throws, but his start was just terrible. He missed badly on his first five (!!) non-screen passes, and his first-quarter interception was the worst of the bunch. He had Andre Davis with a step on his man on a cross over the middle-- that's like, 20 easy yards-- and just overthrew him. There was no pressure or underneath defender forcing the throw to go high. He just missed him, and the ball ricocheted off Davis' hands right to the defender. I hate two-quarterback systems with all my being, but this is a young team and a young season, and they need to figure out who gives them the best shot to win. Give Steven Bench a couple series against Maryland if White struggles out of the gate.

- Credit to Western Carolina: they came out with a very simple, but smart offensive formula. They took advantage of the USF defensive backs playing off the line of scrimmage by peppering the short side of the field with quick screens and outs, and when the Bulls pressed a corner (and, to Chuck Bresnahan's credit, they often did), ran the ball up the middle or threw a quick slant. It played to quarterback Troy Mitchell's strengths, and did a good job preventing the Bulls' pass rush from getting to him.

- Still... why couldn't USF stop it? The quarterback situation is resolvable, but I'm terrified for this defense. Even when the Bulls made the necessary adjustments and sent Chris Dunkley or Jamie Byrd flying up to stop the screens, the Catamounts had options open deeper in the secondary. WCU barely touched what I figured would be the Bulls' biggest weaknesses in the new 3-4 scheme-- power running and downfield passing-- and still put up 454 yards. Pray this defense makes some adjustments before Maryland comes to town.

- I just want to reiterate that Marlon Mack is a total player, and is going to be a pleasure to watch over the next few seasons-- he created a lot of those big runs himself by breaking tackles. If he wants to keep it up against tougher defenses, though, he needs more out of his offensive line. They should have dominated this game from the onset.

- Special teams! They might once again win us some games this season. Marvin Kloss was money, as usual, while Mattias Ciabatti averaged 47.3 yards on his three punts and Chris Dunkley looked like a weapon in the return game. For a team that figures to play a handful of close games this season, having a stellar special teams unit is a really big plus.

- Final note: I've been a crotchety old man about the uniforms since USF abandoned the simple-but-effective 2010 look, but those new helmets admittedly looked very sharp.