The Jackets’ offense performed as one could expect against an FCS opponent on paper, but the real takeaways from Saturday’s matchup were more based on positional performances. At QB, TaQuon Marshall was ineffective through the air in the first half with a sub-40 percent passing rate and an interception — even though the routes were primarily targeted in the short flats and corner. After a halftime tuneup, Marshall finished the game five of six, topping off the final scoring drive with three back-to-back-to-back throws of 25, 13 and 24 yards despite pressure from the interior defense. Marshall blamed his miserable first half on his confidence, but if second half Marshall makes an appearance Saturday, Tech might finally have the Cam Newton-lite behind center that they have been waiting to see since his five touchdown debut against the Tennessee Volunteers.
On the defensive side of the ball, there was an immediate and noticeable improvement from last year’s overly conservative Roof scheme. The Jackets opened up with consecutive forced three-and-outs, giving up only three first downs across Alcorn State’s seven first-quarter possessions with an interception to boot. With both rushing and passing plays held to under 3 yards per play, Tech easily shutout the Braves. Redshirt freshman safety Kaleb Oliver’s mid-game rotation provided an immediate spark to a defensive unit looking to find replacements after a relatively large graduating class in 2017. Woody’s defense stuck with basic Cover 3 out of the base 3-4 for the majority of the game with a few stunt rush packages from the OLBs on both sides, but it is safe to say that most of the creative playmaking was kept up the sleeves for opponents who require a little bit more strategy and trickery to defeat.
Fans may fear that this is a trap game, with the team potentially looking ahead to Pitt. But if the Jackets can capitalize on the momentum from their first shutout victory since 2013, there should be no major issues dismantling a young team and reminding the nation why Charlie Strong caught the axe from Texas just 18 months back.
What happens when a ranked team loses its best quarterback in school history, top running back, top wide receiver, top center, top right guard, top three defensive tackles, two starting linebackers, a starting safety, a kicker and a punter in a single offseason? Fans watching Tech’s game against USF will find out.
In USF’s 34-14 opener over Elon, 2017 backup and presumed starter Brett Kean had been sidelined by a 2-game academic ineligibility suspension, so ASU-graduate-transfer Blake Barnett was trotted out as a placeholder. Fortunately for the Jackets, Barnett did not show off the skills that once made him a contender for the starting quarterback at the University of Alabama. Despite a 40-yard touchdown connection, the majority of his passes were dump-offs for short yardage, and Barnett ultimately failed to impress on the field despite the victory. Former Florida transfer RB Jordan Cronkrite — who rode the bench for USF in 2017 — was out with an injury, but will return on Saturday. It is doubtful that anyone with two sub-160 yard seasons posted almost two years ago will have any significant impact on what appeared to be a weak ground game.
Defensively, USF did snag two interceptions to jump start their quest to reclaim their status as a top-five interception program in back-to-back seasons. But the brand new LB corps primarily comprised of freshmen looked sloppy and out of place on Elon’s opening drive, and their inexperience in positional awareness and tackling form showed in USF’s season opener.
For now, the bottom line seems to be that USF was still riding the high from an exceptional 2017 senior class into their 2018 home opener against an Elon program that made the FCS playoffs but is not ready for an FBS opponent. There is still talent in the program, no doubt about that, but the lack of cohesion between positional units and a serious vulnerability to the run should lead to a healthy margin of victory for Tech on the shoulders of Benson, Searcy, and Marshall. 439 yards rushing last week for the Jackets probably will not be repeated against an FBS team, but against one reeling so gravely, perhaps it is possible. The Bulls’ chances are very slim.