Two very similar programs in record will matchup inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday. The University of South Florida Bulls (3-4, 1-2 AAC) and the East Carolina University Pirates (3-4, 0-3 AAC) find themselves fourth and fifth in the east division of the American Athletic Conference respectively following a stretch of inconsistent offensive play.
ECU will enter Saturday’s contest ranked 89th out of 130 FBS teams in total offense (380.6 yards per game) and 109th in scoring offense (21.7 points per game). USF, on the other hand, is ranked 112th in total offense (328.7 yards per game) and has barely cracked the top-100 in scoring offense with 23.4 points per contest.
Much of the Bulls’ struggles on the offensive side of the football have revolved around the lack of consistency at the quarterback position. Senior quarterback Blake Barnett helmed USF’s offense for the first two games of the 2019 season, but was replaced by redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud after a lackluster performance against Georgia Tech (2-5, 1-3 ACC).
McCloud, in his first collegiate start, racked up five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) against South Carolina State University (4-2, 2-1 MEAC), earning himself the starting nod in each of the four games since while Barnett recovers from ankle surgery.
While McCloud has established himself as a legitimate dual-threat quarterback, racking up 193 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 55 attempts, injuries to his throwing shoulder and wrist have limited his production through the air. After throwing for 217 yards against SC Upstate and 157 against the University of Connecticut (1-6, 0-4 AAC), McCloud was held to just 122 yards combined in his last two contests.
“They’ve had a little bit of unrest at quarterback there with Barnett being out, but McCloud is a really impressive athlete,” Pirate head coach Mike Houston said. “A dual-threat guy that runs really well and throws the ball with good accuracy and good arm strength. I know he’s had some bumps and bruises, but I would expect him to start.”
Despite just seven completed passes for 72 yards two games ago against Brigham Young University (3-4), USF walked away with a 27-23 victory, largely due to the strong play of senior running back Jordan Cronkrite. In that contest, Cronkrite rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns, his only rushing scores of the year.
That being said, however, Cronkrite has posted 459 yards on the ground in 2019, including 382 over his last three games. By far the Bulls’ leading rusher, the senior has the benefit of an experienced offensive line. All five offensive linemen from USF’s 2018 Gasparilla Bowl team are back this season, including senior right tackle Marcus Norman and senior right guard William Atterbury who have 75 combined collegiate starts under its belt.
“Offensively, big athletic front,” Houston said of USF. “Their skill guys run really well. Cronkrite, I think everybody knows him. I think he had a pretty solid game against us last year and had a pretty solid start this year. He’s coming off a streak of a couple of 100-yard games before last week where I think he had 90 yards.”
With inconsistencies at the quarterback position, the Bulls’ receiving corps has taken a hit. Their leading receiver, senior tight end Mitchell Wilcox, is setting on just 241 yards while sophomore wide receiver Bryce Miller paces the team with 14 receptions.
Coupled with USF’s quarterback issues is the absence of sophomore wide receiver Johnny Ford. Ford has missed the last three games due to a violation of team rules despite owning the Bulls’ only 100-yard receiving game this season. That effort came against SC Upstate when he hauled in four catches for exactly 100 yards and one score.
Without Ford, the workload has fallen on a slew of pass-catchers, including sophomore wide receiver Randall St. Felix and junior tight end Jacob Mathis. All told, 15 different players have caught a pass for the Bulls this season, with Wilcox leading the way with a 34.4 yard-per-game average.
Struggles aplenty on the offensive side, USF’s defensive unit is a solid group. Through seven games, the Bulls’ defense has recovered 10 fumbles and booked an average of 9.1 tackles for loss per game. Both of those marks rank third in the FBS while their eight interceptions as a unit rank 21st in the nation.
“They’re a big, good-looking bunch,” Houston said. “They’re going to look good getting off the bus. They’ve got a talented roster. Defensively, I think that they’re very sound with a big, physical, athletic front. The mike linebacker (senior Patrick) Macon is having a great year there. The defensive end, (senior Greg) Reaves is having a fantastic year.”
Macon, as Houston mentions, is a very impactful player of USF’s defense. Currently, he ranks sixth in the AAC with 7.9 tackles per game and has booked eight tackles for loss this season, placing him second on the roster in that category. First, with 8.5 tackles for loss, is fellow linebacker sophomore Dwayne Boyles Jr. who also finds himself fourth on the roster in tackles.
Collectively, the Bulls’ defensive 11 rank third in the FBS in a statistic called defensive mayhem, having recorded either a tackle for loss, interception or fumble on 16.8% of plays from scrimmage this season.
“They’ve done a great job of pressuring the quarterback,” Houston said of USF’s defense. “They’re done a great job of forcing turnovers this year. We’re going to be challenged on offense this week.”
Despite ranking second in the country with 18 turnovers gained this season, USF’s defense finds itself 116th in rushing defense nationally, allowing an average of 213 yards per contest.
For the Pirates, a team that likes to run the football, that could be welcomed news this week. Led by freshman running back Demetrius in the absence of junior Darius Pinnix Jr, ECU’s rushing attack has garnered 1,135 yards through seven games. That mark is the fourth most in program history since 2000 while the Pirates have executed 46 more run plays than pass plays thus far in 2019.
That, of course, has hampered the passing output of sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers as he has broken 300 yards just once this season.
Ahlers’ best effort through the air came last time out against the University of Central Florida (5-2, 2-1 AAC) when he passed for 313 yards and a touchdown. With two total touchdowns in the second half (one passing, one rushing) Ahlers willed his team back into contention despite being down multiple scores.
“The second half (against UCF) should give our guys confidence that they can compete,” Houston said. “The thing is, we should feel that we can go toe-to-toe with anyone given the way we have played against Temple and in the second half against UCF. But the thing is, we’ve got to go out and play with confidence. We’ve got to play aggressive.”
Both USF and ECU have had offensive struggled this season, as mentioned prior. For that reason, the play of both defensive units could play a large role in deciding a winner on Saturday. With some momentum at their backs from last week despite the loss, the Pirates will look to get their first win against USF in Greenville, North Carolina. In fact, ECU owns just one win when facing the Bulls, a series that dates back to 2002.
USF head coach Charlie Strong is 2-1 against the Pirates in his coaching tenure, including a 61-31 Bulls victory the last time these two programs met in Greenville.
Kickoff between the Bulls and Pirates on Saturday is slated for 3:45 p.m. inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.