TAMPA — It’s the college football equivalent of a late-night leaky faucet.
Drip … drip … drip …
It’s the mosquito that won’t go away.
Bzzz … bzzz … bzzz …
It’s the SMU offense, a high-wire, pass-happy unit that spreads you out, then proceeds to drive you crazy. That’s the challenge facing the University of South Florida Bulls (2-7, 2-4 American Athletic Conference) on Saturday night when the Mustangs (4-5, 3-2) visit Raymond James Stadium.
“I don’t think you can stop them,’’ USF coach Willie Taggart said. “We’ve got to do a good job of slowing them down.’’
SMU coach June Jones, previously known for video-game statistics at Hawaii, and offensive coordinator Hal Mumme, the former Kentucky head coach who once was Spurrier Lite in the SEC, have a shared philosophy.
“We’re in it to throw the ball,’’ Jones said.
The Mustangs have the perfect triggerman in senior quarterback Garrett Gilbert, a transfer from Texas, along with a fleet group of receivers who are assaulting the record books.
“They don’t really go that fast and they don’t really have a great tempo because they just line up, call their routes, then let him (Gilbert) sit back there and pick you apart,’’
Connecticut interim coach T.J. Weist said. “It’s not a big-play offense. That’s the thing that kind of lulls you to sleep at times.
“They just keep hitting short passes, short passes, short passes. They don’t really take a lot of shots. It’s just very productive as it moves down the field.’’
There’s a premium on pressure from USF’s front line — blitzing is risky because of Gilbert’s savvy and quick release — and stability from the secondary, which could include a pair of true freshmen in many situations.
“We always tell our guys in the secondary, when something bad happens, they’ve got to have amnesia,’’ said USF assistant head coach Ron Cooper, who works with the defensive backs. “You’ve got to forget it and keep playing. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You’ve got to have trust. You’ve got to have patience.’’
Against Gilbert, who has eight 300-yard passing games, that patience can be tested.
Gilbert leads the nation in total offense (405.7 yards per game). He ranks second nationally in completions per game (35.11) and third in passing yards (376.7). Against Temple, he broke the school record for passing yards (538) and total offense (635, which was the seventh-highest total in NCAA history). Against Rutgers, he was 45-for-70 for 484 yards, while producing seven touchdowns in 81 offensive plays.
Gilbert’s favorite target is senior wide receiver Jeremy Johnson (87 catches, 925 yards, six 100-yard games), who had 18 receptions for a school-record 217 yards against Rutgers. The Mustangs also feature Darius Joseph (79 catches, 691 yards, three 100-yard games) and Keenan Holman (57 catches, 895 yards, four 100-yard games).
“We didn’t stop them or slow them down,’’ Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. “Gilbert is one of the better quarterbacks I’ve had to defense in the last few years. They’ve got good schemes and good players and they can put up some big numbers.
“You’re not going to shut them down or shut them out. It’s just impossible.’’
USF is ranked 87th nationally in pass efficiency defense, surrendering a completion rate of 60.4 percent. Given the productivity or struggles of each unit this season, SMU catches (possibly lots of them) will be made.
Then what? The answer to that question could decide the game.
“We’ve got to keep everything in front of us,’’ USF senior middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore said.
“If they do catch the football, we’ve got to rally to the ball and tackle, not allow any broken tackles, not allow a lot of yards after the catch,’’ Taggart said. “First and foremost, we’ve got to rely on our offense to keep them off the field. We can slow them down that way.’’
USF’s defense will be under constant stress. That much is known.
“You play for 60 minutes and you don’t let up for one of those minutes,’’ USF senior safety Mark Joyce said. “It’s a challenge.’’
Of the highest order.