TAMPA — It's simple to explain the University of South Florida's defensive improvement — literally. When USF coaches simplified the scheme, less became more. Suddenly, players were flying around the field, creating turnovers, scoring, having fun.
“We just weren't comfortable early in the season,” USF senior middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore said. “There was too much going on. Now the vibe is totally different. There's more energy. There's more togetherness. I feel like we can do anything.”
That attitude will be needed today when the Bulls (2-4, 2-1 American Athletic Conference) challenge the No. 18-ranked Louisville Cardinals (6-1, 2-1) at Raymond James Stadium. With an offense led by junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a Heisman Trophy contender and possible No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, the Cardinals are difficult to stop, much less slow down.
But the mentality of USF's defense has reversed.
“We just look a lot faster than we did,” USF coach Willie Taggart said. “We're not slowing down to think so much. We're just playing and reacting, running around, playing ball. You can see smiles on their faces.”
When the season began, there was a long grimace.
On Aug. 31, USF senior safety Mark Joyce lingered on the field, peering up at the scoreboard: McNeese State 53, USF 21. He was sickened.
“I never want to feel this way again,” Joyce thought to himself.
On Sept. 28, Lattimore went to the locker room at halftime, already down four touchdowns to the Miami Hurricanes, who rolled up 251 yards in the first quarter alone.
“Those are the moments when you look inside yourself,” Lattimore said. “You look around the room and you say, 'Something has to change. It can't keep going like this.' ”
And it hasn't.
The Bulls, once 0-4, have climbed into a first-place tie in the AAC. They have scored defensive touchdowns in three straight games, one shy of the school record of four in 2011. The postseason, seemingly a ridiculous thought last month, might still be attainable.
“When you haven't won a game, you hear a lot of things,” USF senior safety Fidel Montgomery said. “Somebody said, 'The only bowl USF is going to is the cereal bowl.' At times like that, you're kind of left with just the people in the locker room.
“Thankfully, we've got a great group of coaches who have kept us together. They keep us in a cocoon. Their attitude doesn't change. They've got a good plan.”
Bulls defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan has employed Montgomery as the “rover” in a specially devised pass-defense package. More of a freelancer, Montgomery accumulated 19 tackles in the past two games. Occasionally, defensive linemen Luke Sager and Aaron Lynch have dropped into linebacker-like positions in pass coverage.
“I love coach Bresnahan, his schemes, his charisma, just his whole attitude,” Joyce said. “He gets us going. We're staying fresh. We're creating more havoc out there. It's like we got our confidence back.”
Bresnahan downplayed his role, saying, “The simplification of the defense is probably an overstatement. We just kept doing the same things, time and time again. By the seventh game, you should be getting better. We're starting to understand the entire concept.”
Especially the concept about creating turnovers. Last season, the Bulls had just nine takeaways.
“I don't think you'll see that again in the history of our school,” Lattimore said.
Now, after practice sessions including turnover circuits, scoop-and-score drills and learning to catch an interception at its apex, the Bulls already have 13 takeaways.
Defensive scores have been needed, given recent struggles by USF's offense, which has gone eight straight quarters without a touchdown. But junior defensive tackle Todd Chandler said USF's defense has adopted a whatever-it-takes attitude.
“When McNeese State came out and put up 53 points, it was deflating,” Chandler said. “It felt like, 'Wow, we can be beaten. We can be scored on … a lot.'
“Coach Bresnahan is a real selfish coach in that he feels we can make every play. He says our No. 1 job on defense is to defend. No matter what happens with our offense, we have to stop the other team. If they get it on our 5-yard line, we have to stop them. We feel like we're up for any challenge.”
Today's challenge — Bridgewater and friends — seems especially rigorous. Louisville's 17th-ranked offense averages 496.7 yards per game. But USF has improved its defensive ranking to 33rd.
“Not only is Teddy poised, but he's smart,” Taggart said. “He can dissect a defense before the play and during the play. Most quarterbacks can't do that. You hit him in his mouth and he's going to get right back up and make another play. That's demoralizing to a defense.
“They all want to play against an NFL quarterback. Well, they've got a chance this week.”
But now there's a change.
Instead of here-we-go-again fatalism, the Bulls are relishing this matchup. They are playing pressure-free — with real attitude — and that new mentality has made a huge difference.
It's that simple.