A few things need to be said before we dive headfirst into the absolute mess that was Saturday afternoon: Florida State is a really good football team. The Louisville disaster aside (“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln...”), they’ve easily been a top five team in the country this season. If they can get healthy and play like they did on Saturday for the rest of the season, they could sneak back into the playoff hunt.
Are we done beating around the bush now? Because given the circumstances, Saturday was one of the most horrendous defensive efforts USF has put forth on a football field in quite some time.
Yes, FSU is a good team. Yes, if both teams were to play their best, the Noles would win almost every time. They should never have won like they did this weekend. This is not a game that we can toss aside with an “Oh, they’re still rebuilding” or “FSU just has more talent,” as we’ve done plenty of times in the last few seasons. USF is a legitimate fringe top-25 team that was hosting a wounded top-15 team in what was billed as their biggest game in a decade. The fans showed up— 60,000 announced and actually over 52,000 of them! B.J. “FSU’s Worst Nightmare” Daniels, George Selvie, and Matt Grothe showed up. The USF defense, regrettably, did not, and as such a fair portion of those people fell asleep on Saturday to nightmares of Dalvin Cook running through acres of open field and squashing Johnny Ward’s head. This wasn’t an issue of having inferior talent; it was an issue of a defense that, for whatever reason, deflated entirely as soon as Cook took his first carry 75 yards to the house. The Bulls weren’t getting pressure, weren’t getting off their blocks, and were leaving holes the size of small countries for Cook and Jacques Patrick to run through. That’s not acceptable, no matter who the opponent is.
The USF offense struggled mightily, but at least they came to play. Flowers’ deep ball to Adams to start the game was gorgeous (if you want to be sad forever, watch a replay of that touchdown and remember how blissful and at peace with the universe you were at that moment). They were a couple of third-down conversions away from keeping pace with the Noles in the first quarter, and kept grinding and moving the ball in the second half.
Two years ago, a result like this would’ve been alright. When you’re trying to build a foundation, mental errors happen. But when you’ve already built that foundation and are getting billed as a dark horse national title contender, a game like this can’t happen, and the fans can’t let the team off the hook for looking unmotivated and unprepared on defense. All you can do now is chalk it up as one massive, big ol’ pile of Nope and immediately start patching up the issues that arose. All of USF’s goals are still very much within reach, but they can’t afford another performance like this one.
Stray Observations from Help:
- I saw more than a few people criticizing Quinton Flowers after the game. I mean, sure? He didn’t play a good game, but quite honestly, with his passing skill set I’m rather surprised that he hasn’t had a game like this yet. In the Florida State game last season, Q was only able to complete one pass to a wide receiver all game. The only reason his numbers looked much better than this year’s game is because the Bulls didn’t even try to throw anything beyond the line of scrimmage for much of that game— take away the long TD to D’Ernest Johnson, and Flowers averaged 2.3 yards per attempt. Even if you take away his beautiful touchdown pass to Rodney Adams in the interest of fairness, he still averaged 5.8 yards per attempt in this game. He was poor, but he certainly wasn’t the reason that the Bulls lost.
- This leads me to a bigger point: Quinton Flowers hasn’t regressed in 2016. He is still one of the most exciting, dynamic players in the conference, if not the nation. He still struggles to make a lot of short-to-intermediate throws that a typical Division I quarterback makes. This is who Q is right now, and it’s more than good enough to produce one of the most lethal offenses— not just running attacks, but offenses in general— in the country. If your complaint is that he hasn’t progressed from last season, then sure, that has some validity to it. But the only reason that Q’s completion percentage is down this year is because Willie Taggart is asking him to throw something other than screens and fly patterns. The only throw that I thought was really ugly was his second interception, where he passed over an open Rodney Adams in the flat in favor of lofting a ball into double coverage. It was a decision made more from frustration than anything else, and that’s what Flowers must avoid— I don’t expect him to make any NFL throws, but his decision-making needs to be pristine. It usually is, but it wasn’t on that play.
- On that note, I don’t think it would hurt if Taggart simplified the offense a bit against Cincinnati. He kept Flowers in the pocket a bit more than usual in the Bulls’ first three games, which made sense given the quality of opponent (over the last five games of 2015, Q averaged 15.8 carries per game. He’s averaged 10.3 in the Bulls’ three wins this season). Call his number on the ground a bit more. Moving away from screens was okay against FSU because of their speed on the edge, but bring back some simpler reads against Cincinnati. I’m not going to harp on Taggart’s playcalling at all, because the assumedly-scripted plays that they ran on the first couple drives on Saturday were tremendous, but he’s got to be able to make adjustments, too. He even said as much.
- If that was the last we’ve seen of Darius Tice in a Bulls uniform, he had a wonderful career that is destined to be overlooked because of his second-string status behind Marlon Mack. In one-and-one-fourth seasons of backup duty, Darius rushed for 629 yards on 5.3 yards per carry, and was on pace for career highs in rushing yards, touchdowns, receiving yards, and total yards this season. You couldn’t ask for more from him. Hopefully he recovers quickly and gets a shot at playing professionally.
- I’m not going to dwell on the defense, because I don’t think they’re nearly as bad as they played on Saturday, but let’s play a hypothetical game here: If the Bulls’ defense is legitimately awful (right now they rank 10th in Offensive S&P+ and 89th in Defensive S&P+, so there a reasonable claim can be made), Willie Taggart is going to have to change up his entire gameplan a bit. For a team that runs an exciting and rather forward-thinking offense, Taggart’s in-game decisions are awfully conservative. He frequently elects to punt rather than trying to convert short fourth downs, and put a bit too much faith in his defense on several occasions against the Noles (the decision not to try an onside kick after scoring the last touchdown, for one). I’d like to think that the Bulls’ D will get back into form against Cincy... but if they don’t, Taggart must adjust his decision-making accordingly. This includes the defense, which should definitely abandon the bend-but-don’t break mentality if they continue to struggle. The offense is averaging 46 points per game this year (40 against the ACC!) and the defense gets gashed if they don’t put pressure on the quarterback; you can afford to sacrifice a few big plays in order to dial up some more blitzes.
- This next week is when we see what this USF team is made of. USF was physically manhandled in a game that they made out to be their biggest in a decade; now they have to go on the road to take on a talented Cincinnati team that’s probably their biggest contender for the AAC East title. We’ve seen this movie before: Jim Leavitt’s USF teams tended to blow an emotional gasket when they hit their first sign of adversity (I wonder why!), and as such, we’ve seen one or two USF teams talented enough to win a conference title end up limping to the end of the season. Saturday was supremely disappointing, but this season can still be an unmitigated success if the Bulls turn around and handle the Bearcats like they should. But this game didn’t exactly inspire confidence, did it?