NCF Nation: Jon Lejiste
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. Is it getting old seeing Bridgewater listed in this space again? Bridgewater was outstanding once again in a 45-17 win over Temple, going 19-of-28 for 324 yards with a career-high five touchdown passes. Facing a 17-all tie in the second quarter, Louisville scored four straight touchdowns to end the game. Bridgewater accounted for three of them, and was pulled in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. He now has surpassed his touchdown passes total from a year ago, with 18 and counting. He had 14 last season.
Ray Graham, RB, Pitt. You guys know I very rarely hand out helmet stickers in a loss. But I am making an exception for Graham, who had his best game of the season in a heartbreaking 29-26 triple-overtime loss to Notre Dame. Graham ran for 172 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added six catches for 25 yards in a performance that was the biggest reason why the Panthers had a chance to pull the upset. Graham was available to play in the game despite being charged with assault earlier in the week.
George Winn, RB, Cincinnati. Winn was outstanding in a 35-24 win over Syracuse. He set career highs for carries (30), rushing yards (165) and rushing touchdowns (three), and also threw the first touchdown of his career. Winn is the first Bearcat since Isaiah Pead to record at least three rushing touchdowns in a game (Rutgers, 2010). The performance also marked Winn’s fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season. He has run for at least 75 yards in nine consecutive games.
USF defense. Give it up for the much-maligned Bulls defense, a particular target of criticism during the Bulls' six-game losing streak for its inability to hold a lead. Well, they held a fourth-quarter lead in a big way against UConn, preserving a 13-6 victory with some key plays down the stretch. USF had three takeaways and its first two interceptions of the season. Both came in the fourth quarter: the first by Jon Lejiste and the second by defensive tackle Elkino Watson to preserve the win. USF also had four sacks and got a strong performance from true freshman linebacker Tashon Whitehurst, who had team-high eight tackles, a sack, hurry and fumble recovery.
Rejoice, South Florida.
The Bulls put together a stellar defensive performance and held on to win a close game, beating UConn 13-6 to snap a six-game losing streak and pick up their first Big East win.
USF got its first two interceptions of the season -- and both came at crucial times in the fourth quarter. Jon Lejiste got the first with 6:27 left in the game. That pick led to a 50-yard field goal from Maikon Bonani to put the Bulls up 13-6.
The second came with UConn threatening to devastate USF in the fourth quarter again. The Huskies drove deep into USF territory, but defensive tackle Elkino Watson batted the ball in the air and came up with the game-saving pick. Watson held onto the ball on the sideline as the offense jogged back onto the field, and you understand why. This win -- and this defensive performance -- were a long time coming for a team many believed would challenge for the Big East title.
In addition to the defensive performance, USF (3-6, 1-4) was able to hang on to win without starting quarterback B.J. Daniels, who was injured following a run earlier in the fourth quarter that gave USF a first-and-goal from the UConn 8. Daniels was helped off the field while putting no weight on his left leg and was later carted off the field to the locker room. He broke his left ankle, and is out for the year.
Matt Floyd came in and could not punch the ball in for a touchdown, but on this night, stringing to together a few field goals late was enough -- because the Huskies are seemingly regressing on offense. Chandler Whitmer was able to make some plays against the shaky USF secondary, but the Huskies (3-6, 0-4) could never string together consistent drives without shooting themselves in the foot. Not only were there turnovers, there were botched snaps and lapses in pass protection. The run game managed a paltry 43 yards.
JaQuez Jenkins, safety, USF. With starting strong safety Jon Lejiste out for the spring because of injury, Jenkins made his presence immediately felt in the defensive backfield and had one of the best springs of anybody on the Bulls roster. Jenkins was everywhere, making big plays and hard hits. His emergence gives USF a nice problem to have once Lejiste returns in the fall.
Scott Radcliff, receiver, Louisville. The most talked-about receiver after the Cardinals' spring game the former walk-on, who played with the first team and led all receivers with nine catches for 119 yards. He is listed ahead of Eli Rogers at the H-receiver spot on the post-spring depth chart.
Walter Stewart, defensive end, Cincinnati. Yes, Stewart is a returning starter. But he has never had a spring like the one he just completed, in which he was able to maintain what he started as his position. Stewart had been switched to several positions earlier in his career, but now he has a home at end and is ready to be a force this season.
Ray Vinopal, safety, Pitt. Safety could actually turn out to be a position of strength across the Big East with some of the talent that has emerged this spring. Vinopal sat out a year after transferring in from Michigan, and despite the coaching change, had an outstanding spring. He made big plays, forced turnovers and now makes safety a bright spot for the Panthers with Jarred Holley, Andrew Taglianetti and Jason Hendricks all returning.
Ryan Wirth, defensive tackle, UConn. The Huskies lost an NFL player in Kendall Reyes, along with their other starting tackle, so this is a huge question going into the season. But Wirth showed he can make an impact inside, especially after his spring performance, with 4.5 sacks and a safety.
2. Jarred Holley, Pitt. A second-team All-Big East selection in 2010, Holley enters his third year as a starter. Last year, he ranked third in the Big East with five interceptions. This year, he should anchor a unit that has the potential to be among the best in the league.
3. Phillip Thomas, Syracuse. Thomas is the top returning tackler for the Orange, having made 92 stops last season. He is a physical player and brings an incredible energy to the field, but has to make sure to keep his emotions in check.
4. Jon Lejiste, USF. The Bulls have one of the best secondaries in the conference, and Lejiste is a reason why. He especially excelled last season on the safety blitz USF liked to use -- he racked up four sacks from his safety position.
5. Terence Garvin, West Virginia. Garvin led the Mountaineers in tackles last season. In fact, he had five or more tackles in nine games last season. He brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 222 pounds), and great leadership and experience as well.
1. Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Not only is Tandy the best cornerback in the league, he is one of the best in the country. Tandy was named to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list this season after a breakout 2010, when he ranked No. 5 in the nation in passes defended (17) and was named first-team All-Big East. He is moving to the left side this season.
2. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, UConn. Wreh-Wilson found his comfort zone last season and became a force. Of his four interceptions, he returned two for touchdowns. He should be even better this year in a secondary that returns all four starters.
3. Quenton Washington, USF. With Mistral Raymond gone, Washington should step in as the team's best cornerback. USF coaches are confident he is going to have a breakout season after an impressive spring. One area he can work on -- helping the secondary get more interceptions. He had just one last season.
4. Dwayne Gratz, UConn. The Huskies overcame a shaky start in the secondary last season and should be one of the best this year. Gratz and Wreh-Wilson team to form the best cornerback duo in the league.
5. Antwuan Reed, Pitt. Reed returns as the most experienced player in the Pitt secondary. Despite missing the spring as a precaution (concussion), Reed should be full-go for fall practice and much is expected of him in his second year as a starter.
Turning point: No doubt about this one. UConn linebacker Lawrence Wilson grabbed a pass tipped by lineman Trevardo Williams and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown and the lead with 1:11 left. The interception happened on the first play after Jon Lejiste picked off Zach Frazer inside the USF 10 and returned it to midfield. The crowd was stunned into silence at the unbelievable turnaround.
Stat of the half: UConn has 124 total yards while USF has 131, and each is averaging right at 4 yards per play. That's how close it is. This has been a defensive battle, and the Huskies have come up with the huge defensive play for a score.
What South Florida needs to do: The Bulls' defensive strategy has been pretty clear. They're loading the box to stop the running game, and doing a reasonably effective job at it. Jordan Todman has 50 yards on 16 carries at the half, a down game for him. USF is playing single coverage against the UConn wide receivers and daring Frazer to beat it. That has worked and should continue to work. But the Bulls need to find a way to move the ball with true freshman walk-on quarterback Bobby Eveld, who has already thrown two interceptions. It may take a big special teams or defensive play for South Florida to win this game.
What Connecticut needs to do: The Huskies are just 30 minutes away from a BCS bid. They need to hold on and not succumb to the pressure of the moment. Frazer must hit a couple of long throws to loosen up the defense, but he can't make mistakes like he did on the Lejiste interception late in the half. The defense is playing great, and the Bulls don't look capable of scoring much against it. If they stick with what got them to this point, UConn will be going to a BCS game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
South Florida coach Jim Leavitt talked about the historic nature of his team's win over Florida State in Saturday's postgame news conference. Near the end of his opening statement, though, Leavitt briefly turned his attention to this week's game at Syracuse.
"We know going up to Syracuse is going to be a tougher situation for us," he said. "If we don't come out and play like we did today, then we'll get beat."
|AP Photo/Phil Coale|
|South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt, right, and Sam Barrington celebrate following their 17-7 win over Florida State.|
That qualified as one situation where a coach wasn't simply boosting up the next opponent. The Bulls have been down this road before, and they know their journey is actually just beginning.
Beating the Seminoles could have long-lasting ramifications for South Florida's recruiting and position in its own state. But Leavitt's program won't really have arrived until it finally makes a breakthrough in the Big East.
The 2009 season so far is eerily reminiscent of both 2008 and 2007. Let's take a quick look at how those previous two years went:
- 2007: The Bulls started 6-0, with a monumental win at Auburn. That start, though, was followed by three straight losses and a Big East record of 4-3. Final record: 9-4.
- 2008: USF began the year 5-0, including a thrilling last-second win over Kansas. That start was followed by a 1-4 stretch and a 2-5 league campaign. Final record: 8-5.
Right now, the Bulls are 4-0. But they've been Mr. September. It's time for them to pull a Reggie Jackson and carry that momentum into October.
South Florida has won 15 straight nonconference games but is just 6-8 in Big East play the past two years. The program has never had fewer than three conference losses in either the Big East or Conference USA.
This month won't be easy. The league opener at Syracuse looks more daunting than it did this summer, as the Orange are 2-2 with a lot of confidence under first-year coach Doug Marrone. South Florida can't spend too much time savoring its big win over Florida State this week in practice.
After this week, the Bulls will have 12 days to get ready for No. 10 Cincinnati's visit to Tampa. Then they'll close out October with a trip to Pittsburgh and a home showdown with West Virginia. The month will define this South Florida season more so than what happened in Tallahassee.
"When you get into the Big East, it's a whole 'nother world," Leavitt said.
Leavitt pins some of the past midseason collapses on injuries that exposed a lack of depth in his program. He said he thinks the depth has gotten better but is still not where it needs to be. South Florida is already dealing with some injuries, none more high-profile than the loss of star quarterback Matt Grothe.
The Bulls, though, overcame that with redshirt freshman B.J. Daniels, who adds some new dimensions to the offense. Several first-year guys played key roles at Florida State, including receiver Sterling Griffin, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, linebacker Sam Barrington and safety Jon Lejiste. Their potential for improvement gives Leavitt some confidence that this year's team will get better as the calendar moves forward, instead of vice versa.
This needs to be the year that South Florida is more than just a September sensation. Or else the Florida State win won't be as historic as much as just history repeating itself.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- South Florida defensive coordinator Joe Tresey could point to schemes and personnel for his team's defensive domination of Florida State on Saturday. But he had a simpler explanation.
"Most of our kids weren't good enough to play for these guys," Tresey said. "They came into this game and they had a little chip on their shoulder. They didn't talk about it a lot. But just kind of deep down inside, they wanted to show up and show them they could play."
There's no doubt about that any more. South Florida's 17-7 win was no fluke. The Bulls didn't just benefit from Florida State mistakes or lucky bounces. They dictated the outcome with a faster, stronger, hungrier group of players.
|AP Photo/Phil Coale|
|Jim Leavitt soaks in his team's win over Florida State Saturday.|
We've seen them do this before. Two years ago, they won at Auburn and beat West Virginia to rise to No. 2 in the nation. Last year, they beat Kansas and made another brief top 10 appearance.
But this was the first time South Florida had ever taken down one of the Sunshine State's holy triumvirate of FSU, Miami and Florida. Now the 13-year-old program can say with a straight face that it deserves a membership in that exclusive club. After all, the Bulls just nailed the interview.
"It's only one game," head coach Jim Leavitt said. "We haven't done what those guys have done. They've won national championships.
"But now when people ask me should you be in the Big Four, I can say, well, at least we should be talked about once in a while."
Speaking of a big four, South Florida's defensive line was the most prestigious group on this field.
The Seminoles rushed for 313 yards last week in a 54-28 win at BYU. On Saturday, they managed just 19 rushing yards. The Bulls' defensive front manhandled the FSU offensive line the whole game, finishing with five sacks and nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage as a unit. Even those statistics don't tell the whole story of how one sided the matchup was.
Because South Florida got so much pressure with just its front four, the rest of the defense could drop into coverage or help out against the run. Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder found success scrambling and throwing the first three games this season; on Saturday he mostly had to run for his life while a Bulls lineman chased him in the backfield.
"We know we're an athletic defensive line, and all we did was come out and be relentless," George Selvie said.
Even field-position disadvantages were turned into an advantage. The Seminoles had first-and-goal on the 3 early in the second quarter but got stuffed on three straight running plays. Selvie flashed his two-time All-American form, while junior college transfer Jason Pierre-Paul -- who just joined the program late in training camp -- provided a menacing bookend, often meeting Selvie at the intersection of Ponder and pounding.
"I've only been here a couple of weeks, and I'm still learning the system," said Pierre-Paul, in what must prompt frightening thoughts for Big East quarterbacks.
Defensive tackles Craig Marshall and Aaron Harris combined for three sacks, too. Safety Nate Allen played like the potential pro he's always been, while freshman Jon Lejiste helped set a tone early with a cannonball hit on Tavares Pressley to cause a fumble. South Florida held the line despite losing starting linebackers Kion Wilson and Chris Robinson to injury and being forced to turn to two true freshmen at that spot.
"The courage was unbelievable," Leavitt said.
After his players had finished celebrating on the field and headed back up the tunnel, Leavitt took a moment to soak everything in. He looked up at his jubilant fans, made a Bulls sign with each hand and leaned his head back, not minding the light rain that was dripping on his face.
He stood there like that for a couple of minutes. Later, he said he nearly broke down and cried then, thinking about this seminal victory over the Seminoles.
"It changes history," he said.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
• Rutgers running back Joe Martinek is ready for a bigger load in 2009, Keith Sargeant says in the Home News Tribune.
• Syracuse coach Doug Marrone is taking a look at four quarterbacks this spring, Donnie Webb writes in the Syracuse Post-Standard.
• Greg Williams' shift from running back to linebacker has paid off for him and for Pitt, Colin Dunlap writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
• Redshirt freshman Jon Lejiste has moved his way up to the starting nickelback at South Florida, Greg Auman notes in the St. Petersburg Times.
• Eric Wood was among the Louisville players who worked out for scouts on the Cardinals' pro day, Michael Grant writes in The Courier-Journal
• Cincinnati's defense is preparing for a near-total reboot, Bill Koch reports in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
8:00 PM ET 20 Duke 1 Florida State 8:17 PM ET 2 Ohio State 10 Michigan State 4:00 PM ET 5 Missouri 3 Auburn 12:00 PM ET 17 Oklahoma 6 Oklahoma State 7:45 PM ET 7 Stanford 11 Arizona State 3:30 PM ET 25 Texas 9 Baylor 12:00 PM ET 16 UCF Southern Methodist 10:00 PM ET Utah State 23 Fresno State