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USF has secondary concerns

MORGANTOWN - South Florida coach Skip Holtz has dealt with injuries all season long. It's part of the reason - along with far too many late-game collapses - that the Bulls are still trying to become bowl eligible on the last weekend of the season after a 4-0 start.

The most significant single injury the Bulls are dealing with right now is the sprained shoulder suffered by junior quarterback B.J. Daniels. His availability for the regular-season finale will likely be a game-time decision.

Still, Daniels' injury might not be the one that has the greatest impact Thursday night when No. 22 West Virginia (8-3, 4-2 Big East) puts its league title hopes up against the bowl eligibility aspirations of South Florida (5-6, 1-5) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

No, the real concern for Holtz is what's going on in his secondary, where no less than seven players have missed all or parts of games this season. The group remains in flux.

"It's certainly not the week you want to be limping into with your secondary,'' Holtz said. "Not when you're playing against a team that's throwing for 350 yards a game.''

Indeed, if South Florida has an area that needs to be fortified heading into a game against the Mountaineers it would be the secondary. West Virginia is far and away the top passing team in the Big East, averaging 100 yards per game more than the runner-up, which just happens to be USF.

While fighting through those secondary issues this season, the Bulls rank just 83rd in the country in pass defense, despite a defensive front that does everything it can to help out. South Florida is second in the nation in sacks.

"One of the problems we've had is just the consistency,'' Holtz said. "It's been a revolving door and that's not the kind of challenge you want walking into the most explosive offensive team in this league. It presents some challenges for us.''

The biggest issues are at the most critical positions - the cornerbacks. At the top of USF's depth chart there, the Bulls are actually pretty good. Junior Kayvon Webster and senior Quenton Washington have combined to play in 81 games with 53 starts.

But Webster missed last week's game against Louisville after suffering a concussion against Miami. Washington, meanwhile, played against Louisville after being knocked out of the Miami game, but didn't finish the game because of a shoulder injury.

Holtz is hopeful both can play Thursday against West Virginia, but if they can't it's not as easy as plugging in the backups. The top two are George Baker, who is doubtful with a rib injury, and JaQuez Jenkins, who has battled a bad hamstring all season.

Beyond that? Well, Ricardo Dixon and Ernie Tabuteau would likely be next in line were they not out for the season with knee and back injuries, respectively. And if the cornerback situation isn't bad enough, backup safety Tyson Butler is questionable with a neck injury and another backup safety, Spencer Boyd, was suspended from the team.

"Some years it seems you get hit harder at some spots than others,'' Holtz said. "And it seems like the wide receivers and defensive backs have been kind of targeted for us. We finished [the Louisville game] without seven defensive backs. You're getting into your depth on your football team and this time of year the teams that are playing well are those that have been able to create depth during the course of the year.''

One might think that a guy like West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith would be licking his chops over the prospect of facing a USF secondary that could be reduced to walk-ons at any second. If he is, though, he's not saying.

"I wouldn't say it's a weakness,'' Smith said of the Bulls' secondary. "They have a lot of young guys getting reps and you don't know what they can do until they get out there. It doesn't matter what it looks like on paper.''

No, but the on-paper version of the USF secondary is a mess. The on-field version hasn't been faring too well, either. Louisville freshman Teddy Bridgewater threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns last week.

"We gave up three uncontested touchdown passes when we were in three-deep coverage,'' Holtz said. "You just can't make those types of mistakes and expect to win a football game against a good football team.

 "We just have to see who's healthy and where we have to put the pieces to the puzzle in order to put a defense on the field. You're not going to stop [WVU's offense], but you can at least try to slow them down a little bit to where we can keep up with them.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.


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