NCF Nation: Sam Barrington
1. Pitt gave it the ol' college try. And by the ol' college try, I mean Pitt blew a 20-6 fourth-quarter lead against No. 3 Notre Dame and found a way to lose. There were so many turning point moments in this game. Forget about the phantom pass-interference call on K'Waun Williams that led to the Irish closing the gap to 20-12. Pitt had several opportunities to put a clamp on the game. But questionable play calling has left many scratching their heads. Pitt had the ball with 3 minutes, 59 seconds left in the fourth quarter, still leading, and the first call from its own 20 was a pass. The Panthers eventually went three-and-out. After Notre Dame tied the game, Pitt went three-and-out again. All of a sudden, an offense that was having no problem running the ball on the Irish could do nothing. In the second overtime, a botched snap led to Kevin Harper missing what would have been a game-winning 33-yard field goal. There are only so many chances you have to take down one of the best teams in the nation. You got the feeling as the fourth quarter wore on that Pitt would find a way to lose. The Panthers did.
2. Louisville is H-O-T. Instead of letting Temple hang with them for four quarters, the Cardinals ditched the Owls midway through the second quarter, ending the game on a 28-0 run and moving to 9-0 -- the best start in school history. Louisville won 45-17 for its sixth consecutive home win, the longest streak under coach Charlie Strong. What more can I say about Teddy Bridgewater, the runaway choice for Big East Offensive Player of the Year? He had another outstanding game, throwing a career-high five touchdown passes on a shaky secondary. Louisville has Syracuse and Connecticut coming up, giving the Cardinals a great shot at being undefeated going into the regular-season finale at Rutgers.
4. Syracuse cannot avoid mistakes. I said this Saturday on Twitter: Watching Syracuse is so maddening because this team should be bowl eligible by now, given some of the plays we have seen the Orange make this season. But in the same way misery loves company, mistakes love the Orange. They can't quit each other. Syracuse had many opportunities to beat the Bearcats, but mistakes compounded themselves. There were two turnovers that led to 14 points, a blocked field goal, missed field goals, 12 penalties and costly drops. The Orange are now going to need wins in two of their final three games (Louisville, at Missouri, at Temple) to become bowl eligible. "We have people in position to make plays," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "When we make them, we play pretty darn good." Problem is, Syracuse has not made enough of them this year.
5. South Florida knows how to win. That was not so clear over the course of the past two months, when the Bulls dropped six straight games, including four close ones in the fourth quarter. The defense took a particular brunt of the criticism from not only fans but also coach Skip Holtz, who said last week he would consider making staff changes when the season ended. Well, the Bulls responded against UConn, winning 13-6 with a particularly strong fourth quarter. When was the last time somebody said that about the Bulls? After team leader B.J. Daniels went down with an ankle injury, the defense got its first two interceptions of the season -- the last Football Bowl Subdivision team in the nation to get a pick -- and preserved the close victory. The defensive front had its best performance of the season, consistently pressuring the Huskies quarterbacks. USF had a dominating defensive performance without starting linebacker Sam Barrington, who was suspended for the game. USF has to win out to get to a bowl game, but breaking a six-game losing streak and winning a close game certainly feels better than what the Bulls have gone through since their last win -- Sept. 8 at Nevada.
1. The offense went missing. West Virginia and its prolific offense took a seat on the couch this week, leaving the rest of the league in the spotlight. Most of us had to hide our eyes at what passed for offense Saturday. UConn, Louisville and Pitt failed to score offensive touchdowns. USF had one. The highest scoring team -- Cincinnati with 25 points. That would be 20 points below its season average. Only the Bearcats and Rutgers went over 20 points. It was the ugliest weekend of the season.
3. The USF Bulls teased. Again. This is a team that starts off hot, but then disappoints. With 16 days between games, you would have thought the Bulls would have played a bit better against UConn. Four turnovers -- including three from B.J. Daniels -- cost them big time in a 16-10 loss. So did nine penalties and an inability to convert on third down for the second straight week. After a 4-0 start that featured three wins against cupcakes, the Bulls are now 0-2 in conference. Their two losses are to teams that currently have losing records (Pitt, UConn are each 3-4).
4. Rutgers, Cincinnati nearly bowl eligible. Two teams nobody picked anywhere near the top of the conference are now one win away from becoming bowl eligible. Both were 4-8 last season; both sit at 5-1 headed into next week. Both hit the road next week: Rutgers is at Louisville; Cincinnati goes to USF.
5. Defensive fronts dominated. Well, maybe the offense was bad, but the defensive lines had nice showings Saturday. Cincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe had a career-high 11 tackles and the Bearcats had four sacks. Rutgers had four sacks -- on a triple-option team. Pitt had seven sacks against Utah. USF tied a school record with seven sacks -- Ryne Giddins set a career high with two sacks and Sam Barrington set a career high with 1.5 sacks. Louisville had three. The only Big East team that did not have a sack this week was UConn -- the No. 2 team in the conference in that category headed into Week 7.
No. 18 USF (4-0) has scored 50-plus points in consecutive games for the first time in school history, and dominated on the ground, racking up 373 yards on the ground and nearly setting a school record. B.J. Daniels had yet another terrific game -- scoring on a 71-yard touchdown run -- to help him lead the team with 130 yards rushing.
He added 202 yards passing and two touchdowns through the air as he continues to impress through the first four games of the season. There was not much to complain about on the offense. The defense gave fans some heart palpitations early in the game, and was within two touchdowns until the Bulls blew the game open in the fourth quarter.
USF did get three interceptions, including one returned 30 yards for a touchdown by Sam Barrington to close out the victory.
One injury note: USF receiver Terrence Mitchell was carted off the field after a head-t0-head collision on a UTEP fake punt attempt. The school says he has feeling in his extremities and was carted off as a precaution.
The Bulls now have five days to get ready for the Big East opener at Pitt on Thursday night.
2. Connecticut. The strength of the team is on defense, but if there is one group on this unit that has the biggest questions it is linebacker. There is no disputing Sio Moore is one of the best in the league. But the Huskies lost four-year starters Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus. Jory Johnson, Jerome Williams, Mike Osiecki and Yawin Smallwood are all in the mix, but there is no question this group is much more inexperienced than a year ago. Still, Moore makes this a top-tier group.
3. Louisville. The Cardinals lose Brandon Heath and a few other players who brought valuable experience. But Daniel Brown and Dexter Heyman are experienced starters who will anchor this unit. The Cardinals took a hit when Brandon Golson reportedly decided to transfer, so they are going to need to work on some depth.
4. Rutgers. Some players moved around during the spring -- Manny Abreu moved from strongside linebacker to defensive end, and Khaseem Greene moved from safety to weakside linebacker. These moves should make the defense better. Steve Beauharnais switched back to the strong side from the middle, a move that should benefit him. Ka'Lial Glaud is now penciled in to start in the middle. Marvin Booker had a good spring as well. Depth is an issue and true freshman Quentin Gause and Kevin Snyder could play. But this group should be better.
5. West Virginia. Najee Goode is a proven big-time player, but there were some huge losses for this unit. Anthony Leonard, JT Thomas and Pat Lazear are all gone. Junior college transfer Josh Francis and Casey Vance are competing on the weakside and Doug Rigg, Tyler Anderson and Donovan Miles on the strong side. Francis would add athleticism to the group, but first he has to win the starting job.
6. Pittsburgh. The Panthers are transitioning to a 3-4 and experimented plenty during the spring with various combinations. They have experience, with the top seven linebackers on the team returning. Plus Brandon Lindsey is going to play more of a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role. But this was one of the worst units on the team last season. Max Gruder and Greg Williams have to be better for this unit to be ranked higher.
7. Syracuse. The Orange lose not only two of their best players, but two of their biggest leaders in Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. Smith led the team in tackles, and Hogue was right behind him, making linebacker one of the biggest question marks on this team heading into the season. Two other contributors, Malcolm Cater and Brice Hawkes, were kicked off the team. That leaves sophmore Marquis Spruill as the only player with significant playing time among the linebackers, and he moved to a new position in the middle. Early enrollee Dyshawn Davis, a receiver in high school, is penciled in to start so that should tell you where this group is headed into the fall.
8. Cincinnati. JK Schaffer is one of the best in the Big East, but depth here is a concern. Walter Stewart has moved to defensive end, leaving a hole at one of the linebacker spots. True freshmen Nick Temple and Dwight Jackson were in for spring practice are expected to compete for starting jobs. This unit was not very good last year and undersized, making it the group with the most to prove in 2011.
Vote here in our poll and we'll tally up the results and react to them at a later time. Up next: Who will be the 2011 Big East Defensive Player of the Year?
I gave odds on some top candidates earlier this spring, and here's a list of my top five nominees:
- Brandon Lindsey, LB, Pittsburgh: Led the league in tackles for loss and finished second in sacks in 2010. Will get a chance to make all kinds of plays from new hybrid "panther" linebacker position.
- Bruce Irvin, DE, West Virginia: Finished second nationally in sacks last year with 14 and will have an every-down role this year as he looks to terrorize quarterbacks.
- Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse: Had a solid sophomore campaign and could be poised to take a huge leap forward in 2011.
- Sio Moore, LB, Connecticut: Collected over 100 tackles in his first full season of starting last year and should continue UConn's strong linebacker tradition.
- Sam Barrington, LB, South Florida: A skilled, heady player who'll be asked to lead a deep and talented -- if somewhat anonymous -- Bulls defense.
So those are the nominees. Now it's time to let your voice be heard.
Barrington, as he did last year and as he's done five times in the past four years, made the long flight to Ghana. His father, also named Sam, was born there and operates a contracting business in the West African nation.
Barrington, who's from Jacksonville, Fla., likes spending time with his dad. But he also tries to do charitable work every time he goes to Ghana. On this latest trip, he traveled to the countryside and handed out food to locals.
The trip helps Barrington place things in perspective.
"It brings me to the realization that you can't take life for granted," he said. "I'm a lot more fortunate than others, so I have to be grateful for what I have. That makes me want to work harder, because somebody else would surely want to be in my shoes."
South Florida is glad to have Barrington in his own cleats. The rising junior moved into a full-time starting role last year and finished third on the team with 65 tackles. His speed and instincts make him one of the most reliable players on the Bulls' defense, and he has all the tools to be a star in the Big East.
Barrington played middle linebacker last year. He moved to outside linebacker at the start of spring practice but recently slid back into the middle. That's a position that calls for a lot of leadership, which is a trait Barrington exudes and welcomes.
"I like to put myself forward as a leader, not just at my position but on the defense and as one of the leaders on the team," he said. "That leadership comes with consequences and responsibilities, but I'm willing to do that if that's what it takes for us to win."
Barrington was a highly-recruited player who turned down Miami to come to USF. He has felt vindicated by that choice with wins over the Hurricanes and Florida State during his young career. He says the game is slowing down for him this spring as he gains a better understanding of the defense, which could lead to even more plays for him in 2011.
One of Barrington's future goals is to start a foundation that will help deliver goods and services to the poor in Ghana. He says he's a little too busy to start that yet, "but once I can, I plan on going full-fledged with it."
His first goal is to lead the Bulls to new heights. And maybe there will be some eyes in Ghana watching him do it.
"Our fan base over there is growing," he said.
After all, the Bulls had first-round NFL pick Jason Pierre-Paul and former Big East defensive player of the year George Selvie at defensive end last season. This year, the group is talented, but far more anonymous.
Yet there is something noticeable about both South Florida's defensive front and its defense as a whole. It is playing with more discipline. Credit that to new defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.
"What Doug was talking about was our base fundamentals," Snyder said. "That's just my background and Coach [Skip] Holtz's background. We're going to strike people, use our hands and get off blocks. We're not a run-around defense.
"One liability I saw last year was we were all up-the-field, run-around blocks. And when we got against people that pounded us, who got big on us, we weren't very good."
Just take a look at last year's box scores against Rutgers and Pittsburgh for proof of that. These Bulls are still fast on defense, and Snyder will unleash them at times with blitzes and movement. But for the most part, he's stressing technique over chaos.
"I feel like we're a very versatile defense," linebacker Sam Barrington said. "We definitely can go out and get turnovers, tackles for loss and sacks. But at the same time, we play within the scheme. We don't have too many MA's [missed assignments]. We're a smart defense, in my opinion."
Smarter doesn't mean weaker. South Florida ranks in the Top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. Yes, those numbers are inflated somewhat by games against Stony Brook, Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic. But in the real test this season, the Bulls stymied Florida for a half before offensive turnovers and poor field position finally doomed them in a 38-14 loss.
"We are where we need to be going into conference play, but we've got a long ways to go," Snyder said. "We're new. We've got a lot of new faces out there and this is a new defense for them. But with where we're at, I'm pleased. We'll find out a lot more this week."
Syracuse presents some interesting challenges. The Orange base a lot of what they do off the running game, starting with the power of Delone Carter and the speed of Antwon Bailey. The passing game is much improved under sophomore quarterback Ryan Nassib. Snyder said Nassib creates problems with his mobility, and that he's farther ahead this year of where Greg Paulus was a year ago. The Orange also had last week off after playing two straight FCS opponents; you can bet that Marrone has installed some new offensive wrinkles that he has kept from putting on film.
Saturday, then, will provide a good test of just how disciplined South Florida's defense is.
"We're going in there with confidence like we're going to win the Big East," Barrington said. "But we're not taking anything for granted."
Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:
- Building depth: New coach Butch Jones said this is the biggest key for the spring. The Bearcats have a lot of top-flight players with starting experience back, like Zach Collaros, Armon Binns, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer. But there's a lot of youth and inexperience in potential backup roles, especially at positions like offensive line, linebacker and receiver. All slates are clean with the new coaching staff, and the spring will be a time when new names can emerge in key roles.
- Defensive line retooling: Jones will switch back to the 4-3 after a year in the 3-4 scheme. Both starting defensive ends from last year are gone, but the smallish line was overpowered at times near the end of the season anyway. Derek Wolfe should be a fixture inside, Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and John Hughes step into more prominent roles. Jones will have to decide whether to make Walter Stewart a defensive end or keep him at outside linebacker. The Bearcats could use a little more strength and bulk up front against the bigger Big East offensive lines.
- Vidal's arrival: USC transfer Vidal Hazelton is eligible after sitting out last year. He reputedly dominated practices last season, and now he'll get to go full time with the first string. A lot of people will be watching closely to see how he and Collaros connect during the spring. A big year by Hazelton will lessen the loss of star wideout Mardy Gilyard and could keep Cincinnati as the Big East's best offense.
Spring practice starts: March 16
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:
- Secondary matters: UConn returns a truckload of starters and looks rock solid in most areas. But the defensive backfield will be an area of emphasis starting in the spring. Gone are stalwarts Robert McClain and Robert Vaughn from a secondary that got picked apart much of the season by opposing passing games. Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson showed progress by the end of their redshirt freshmen seasons and should be the starting corners. The Huskies need someone to replace Vaughn at safety and overall better performance from the unit.
- Frazer vs. Endres: Zach Frazer and Cody Endres have been splitting starts since the second half of the 2008 season at quarterback. Endres took over early last year and played well until he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Frazer picked things up late after a slow start. The competition should be back on this spring, with Frazer probably holding the edge given his late-season improvement.
- Catch as catch can: Receiver was a major question for UConn going into last spring, when walk-on senior Marcus Easley surprised everybody with his giant leap forward. He became the go-to guy in 2009, but now he's gone, along with starter Brad Kanuch. So the Huskies are basically back in the same position as this time a year ago, needing to find some reliable pass catchers. Kashif Moore may be the next to break out after some good, late-year performances. And perhaps former highly-touted recruit Dwayne Difton will emerge. UConn hopes to catch lightning in a bottle again like it did with Easley.
Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Switching to Strong: The Cardinals will have their first practices under new coach Charlie Strong, who promises to bring a much different style than former coach Steve Kragthorpe. Strong is known as being an intense guy on the field, and as a former top-flight defensive coordinator, he will likely be particularly demanding of players on that side of the ball. There will be new terminology to learn, new assistants and new standards to which the Cardinals must adjust in a hurry.
- The quarterback shuffle: Louisville had three quarterbacks -- Adam Froman, Justin Burke and Will Stein -- start games last year. All three will be given the chance to win the job in the spring, and mid-year enrollee Luke Woodley might see some snaps as well. Don't be surprised if this competition goes into the fall and if other newcomers like Dominique Brown get a look. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford wants to run a Florida-style spread offense, which might favor the more mobile Froman if he chooses to go with a veteran under center.
- Line play: The trenches have not been a particularly strong suit for Louisville the past couple of seasons, one of the reasons why the program has fallen out of annual postseason play. The Cardinals have gotten very little pass rush from the defensive line and not enough of a consistent push from the offensive line. Strong asked the offensive linemen to rework their bodies to prepare for the spread, and he'll need replacements for two senior defensive tackles. Junior-college imports Randy Salmon and Tyler Harrell will have a chance to impress on the defensive line. If the holdovers don't step up, we could see more newcomers in key spots by the summer.
Miami comes to Tampa this weekend for the first of a planned five-year series between the two schools. The Hurricanes and Bulls will meet during Thanksgiving week just like Florida and Florida State do every year. On Saturday, the two games will even kick off at the same time (3:30 p.m. ET) and both will have network broadcasts -- ABC will show the USF-Miami game to about 40 percent of the country. Bulls coach Jim Leavitt hopes this becomes a second traditional rivalry game in the state.
This isn't the first meeting between the two schools; South Florida lost at Miami, 27-7, in 2005. But the Bulls feel like their program has come a long way since then, and that they can now begin to compete with the state's superpowers. They proved that by beating Florida State 17-7 in Tallahassee back in September.
"That gave us a lot of confidence to move on to another big team," South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels said.
This will be the first time the Bulls have a home game against one of the Big Three. Raymond James Stadium is officially listed as a sellout for Saturday.
"That's a real big deal for us," defensive end George Selvie said. "They're coming to our stadium on Thanksgiving weekend. It will be one of the biggest games ever played in the Ray Jay."
South Florida (7-3, 3-3 Big East) has, in some ways, disappointed this year, faltering in conference play after another hot start. But to beat Florida State and Miami in the same season would make this one of the most memorable campaigns in school history.
"I think the biggest aspect for our program is recruiting," linebacker Kion Wilson said. "Hopefully this will help us land some better recruits and actually launch the program even more than it even is, if we have the ability to beat both Florida State and Miami."
The Bulls beat out the Hurricanes for a few recruits this past offseason, most notably defensive back Kayvon Webster and linebacker Sam Barrington, both of whom have played a lot this season. They're always going to be butting heads with Miami, Florida State and Florida on the intense Sunshine State recruiting trail.
Leavitt said the difference in those programs and his own right now is that they can stockpile top-shelf recruits and create lots of depth on the roster. He doesn't think the Bulls are quite there yet, which may be one reason the team has slipped in midseason the past few years.
But South Florida -- which gets its first crack at the Gators next year in The Swamp -- is getting closer to the other state superpowers. Saturday brings another chance to knock down the entry gate.
"I felt like beating [Florida State] was the first step," Daniels said. "Playing Miami is another step. I won't ever say we're in the Big Four until we beat all of them."
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.
TAMPA -- Kion Wilson is aiming high for 2009.
"I want to break Tyrone McKenzie's record for tackles," Wilson said.
|Kim Klement/US PRESSWIRE|
|Kion Wilson has high expectations for himself in 2009.|
McKenzie set the South Florida mark with 121 stops in 2007, then added another 116 as a senior last year. With McKenzie gone, Wilson knows that he's the team's top linebacker and that he's got to pick up that production.
"I'm going to be the starter in the middle, so I feel like I should make one out of every three plays," he said.
If the season started today, the Bulls might need Wilson to make plays even more frequently than that. While he's an anchor at middle linebacker, the team has question marks at the other spots.
Inexperience and inconsistency have plagued the outside linebacker candidates this spring, and the starters there might not be determined until some newcomers arrive this summer.
"We're a ways away from having what you'd say are three really solid starters there," co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach David Blackwell said. "I think there will be an awful lot of competition going into the fall."
Even Wilson, a senior, is not all that experienced himself. A junior-college transfer, he had to play a larger role than expected last season when Brouce Mompremier got hurt early in the year. Wilson finished with 66 tackles, which ranked third on the team.
Like many junior-college imports, it took him several games to adjust to FBS-level competition, but he said he gained more confidence as the year went on. Now he finds himself as one of the leaders on defense.
"I try to mentor the guys and tell them how it is," Wilson said. "I'm more of a lead-by-example guy. But I have to step outside my boundaries for the betterment of the team."