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Joe Henderson Columns

Bulls will test focus against Rattlers

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 10:18 PM
TAMPA -

We have seen this before from the University of South Florida football team. The Bulls have been known to be September wonders, working their way into the rankings only to figure out what they were doing right and correct it. If you've followed the Bulls over the years, you know what I'm talking about.

So even though there is much to like about USF's 2-0 start and No. 20 standing in the national polls, it's best for right now to stay grounded.

With that in mind, we take you to Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium and the game between Florida A&M and South Florida. The Rattlers, trying to rebuild a proud program, are 1-1 after finishing 8-3 last year. It's always good when in-state teams get together.

There should be a fine crowd and festive atmosphere.

Let's be honest, though. It also represents an easy win for 20th-ranked USF and a chance to find out just how much depth there is on this team. FAMU and next week's opponent, Texas-El Paso, are the Bulls' last chances to fine-tune things before Big East Conference play begins Sept. 29 at Pitt.

"We need to be focused," Bulls coach Skip Holtz said Tuesday at his weekly media briefing, and while that is a fine example of coach-speak, it's also something USF has done extremely well in its first two games.

Take the opener at Notre Dame, for instance. There was a summer-long buildup of hype and anticipation for the Bulls' first trip to South Bend, but they handled it and came away with a 23-20 victory.

They also showed how quickly they could regroup and concentrate on the task at hand when they dismantled Ball State last Saturday.

Quarterback B.J. Daniels threw for 359 yards and a touchdown. Running back Darrell Scott picked up 82 yards on 11 carries.

"It was far and away the best game B.J. Daniels has had since I've been here," Holtz said.

The Bulls outgained Ball State 519-225 in total yards. The Cardinals didn't score until late in the game. USF only had three penalties. The challenge will be to do more of the same the next two weeks.

Given the 37-7 final score — including 30-0 at halftime — it seems strange to look back on that night as a potential trap game, but it sure was. The Bulls were coming off that strange but exhilarating win at Notre Dame, and the week was shrouded by the emotions surrounding the death of Lee Roy Selmon.

It's still hard to tell how good they really are, but the same could be said for just about any team in the country. The next two weeks won't really answer those questions, since all eyes outside the program will be waiting for the game with Pitt.

That takes us back to the whole "focus" issue.

"Through two games this team has done a great job of making sure they are ready to peak on Saturday at kickoff," Holtz said. "They deserve an awful lot of credit for that because we can talk about it as coaches, but when it comes from within it's easier to accomplish."

This game is likely to be one-sided on the scoreboard, but the Bulls will be single-minded in their approach. That's an encouraging trait as you glance down the schedule toward larger challenges ahead.

"When you get around a good football team, they don't worry about who you're playing this week," Holtz said. "It's not like, 'This week we've really got to be focused because the opponent is X.'

"This football team, we've got to do what we do. We've got to get better. We're not there yet. They understand we have lofty expectations for where we want to go."

That, of course, is to a BCS bowl game — which is where no Bull has gone before. They can only do that by winning the Big East championship, and to do that they'll have to survive a schedule that puts them on the road for four of their first five conference games.

We know the Bulls have started fast before only to fade, so we'll wait before drawing too many conclusions about this bunch. For now, the task at hand is Florida A&M. The Bulls will win, but how they go about accomplishing that may be the real story of the game. If they follow the script they've used for the first two weeks, they'll be just fine.

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