The last time USF and Tulsa met on a football field, it ended up being a fateful day for the Golden Hurricane program. After spotting Tulsa a 27-7 halftime lead, USF roared back on the arm of Mike White and the hands of Andre Davis to win 38-30. It was the largest comeback in USF history, and although it turned out to be kind of a fluke for the Bulls, it may have been a tipping point for Tulsa with former coach Bill Blankenship. That game dropped the team to 1-6 and afterwards, fans loudly vented their frustration about blowing a 20-point lead to a low-voltage USF team. Tulsa waited until the end of the season to let Blankenship go, but the die had already been cast.
In came Philip Montgomery, who had spent the previous six years as Baylor’s offensive coordinator. He had all of the Art Briles football pedigree, and fortunately none of the off-the-field stink. Under Montgomery, Tulsa quickly became a high-scoring, free-wheeling team. They went 6-6 in 2015 and lost a memorable Independence Bowl 55-52 to Virginia Tech in Frank Beamer’s last game. Last season the Golden Hurricane improved to 10-3, giving Houston and Navy all they could handle in the American’s West Division. They finished the season by clobbering Central Michigan in the Miami Beach Bowl. It seemed like as long as Tulsa could replace their star quarterback and two wide receivers, they would be right back in the mix again in 2017.
That hasn’t happened, though. Maybe to their detriment, Tulsa leaned on a very small group of skill position players last year. Dane Evans threw all but 13 of the team’s passes. Keevan Lucas and Joshua Atkinson caught 159 passes between them. James Flanders and D’Angelo Brewer carried the ball 522 times for over 3000 yards. All of those players except Brewer were seniors, and their shoes may have been too big for their replacements to fill. The real struggle has been at quarterback, where neither Chad President or Luke Skipper have come close to matching Evans’ production. Throw in a horror show defense and you get a lost 2-8 season.
However, looks can be a bit deceiving. Tulsa has shown flashes of their previous brilliance this year (66 points vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, 53 against Tulsa, 34 against SMU) and they could still give USF’s defense some real problems, especially on the ground. Let’s dig into the numbers.
|S&P+ (USF O vs. Tulsa D)
|S&P+ (Tulsa O vs. USF D)
So, like we said: Tulsa isn’t bad offensively, but their defense is an absolute travesty and will probably cost them again.
When Tulsa Runs...
|Rushing Success Rate
Brewer, a senior, and freshman Shamari Brooks have teamed up to run for over 1700 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. They’re also supported by a strong offensive line that ranks 13th in Adjusted Line Yards (the yardage the backs get based on how well the line blocks for them). For a USF team that usually wins at the line of scrimmage against the run, this will be their biggest test of the season so far. They’ll need to be successful or Tulsa will break some long runs and keep themselves in the game.
When Tulsa Passes...
|Passing Success Rate
Last year these numbers would have been terrifying. This year, they’re anything but. The inability of Skipper and President to hit the downfield throws that make this system so hard to defend has disrupted the entire offense. USF’s defense excels against the pass already and loves to take the ball away. They might be able to make the Golden Hurricane one-dimensional, which would give them a much better chance of slowing down Tulsa’s running game.
When USF Runs...
|Rushing Success Rate
Last time out against UConn, we saw some welcome changes to the USF offense. Gone for the most part was #HBDive and bland iso runs. In its place were more varied runs and some designed runs for Quinton Flowers. It helped kick-start the team and led to over 600 yards of offense for the Bulls.
Tulsa’s run defense is atrocious. No matter what Sterlin Gilbert calls tonight, it’s probably going to work.
When USF Passes...
|Passing Success Rate
The USF passing game took a big leap forward against UConn. The screen game was reintroduced to the offense, and combined with a steady diet of hitches and short passes, Flowers (a career-high 385 yards) and his receivers feasted on the Huskies’ awful pass defense. It should be more of the same against Tulsa, who is even worse against the pass than UConn was.
Summary and Prediction
Sterlin needs to continue mixing it up against the Golden Hurricane. You’d think if there was any offense Tulsa might have a chance of slowing down, it’s one that resembles what they already practice against every day. (Before he moved to Texas last season, Gilbert worked under Montgomery as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2015.)
USF won’t be looking past Tulsa, knowing their chances of winning the East Division drop to basically nil if they were to somehow lose this game. As long as USF stays out of its own way on offense, and as long as they can keep their own defensive focus on Tulsa’s running game, they shouldn’t have much trouble winning the game.