As tough as things have been at times for the University of South Florida defense this season, the Bulls have been the nation's most proficient unit at producing negative-yardage plays.
Entering Friday night's game at Syracuse, the Bulls ranked first nationally among FBS programs with 72 tackles for loss, an average of nine stops per game behind the line of scrimmage.
"I think it's effort and execution," junior linebacker Sam Barrington said of the team's success producing negative-yardage plays.
"You never know what might happen in the course of a play, but if you're giving that maximum effort, you know, the ball just might swing your way. The other half of that is the execution part, just getting your job done."
The Bulls had a strong effort in that area in last week's loss at Rutgers, finishing with 11 tackles for loss and marking the fifth time in the past seven games USF has had at least 10 tackles for loss. It helped the defense limit the Scarlet Knights to minus-7 rushing yards for the game, just the third time in program history the Bulls held an opponent to negative rushing yardage and the first since a school-record minus-52 against Charleston Southern in 2008.
Bulls coach Skip Holtz praised defensive line coaches Kevin Patrick and Vernon Hargreaves for developing the players in the front four, and he heaped praise on his linebacker corps as well. Specifically, Holtz said, sophomore DeDe Lattimore is "playing as well as a linebacker can play with some of the things he's doing."
"Those guys are really playing well," Holtz said. "I think it's that front seven, the way we're playing in that front seven, creating some personnel and winning one on one. It's not so much scheme and we've changed what we're doing as much as it is personnel. They're taking advantage of some one-on-one situations, they're playing with some excitement, with some energy, with some enthusiasm, and I think that is carrying over into being as productive as they're being right now as a defensive front seven."
Where the Bulls defense has struggled lately is coming up with a stop when the game is on the line. In each of the past two games, against Cincinnati and Rutgers, USF held a lead in the final 90 seconds, only to watch the defense surrender a game-tying or winning score.
"It comes down, and we've talked about it as a staff, when you get to that situation somebody's got to make a play. Period," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "You either want the ball or you don't want the ball. You either want to go make a play or you don't want to go make a play. …
"At some point in time, we've got to come up with a play. We know the ball's going down the field. We know that. We have to go become the wide receiver. I don't know what else to do other than continue to practice it and continue to preach about it."
Syracuse senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, who is on pace for the best statistical passing season in program history with 1,960 yards and 18 touchdown passes, has been at his best late in games this year. Nassib has thrown for 613 yards and seven touchdowns in the fourth quarter and has led the Orange on winning drives in the final quarter in four of their five wins.
Nassib also led Syracuse on a wining touchdown drive in the fourth quarter in last year's 13-9 win against USF in Tampa, one of seven fourth-quarter winning drives in his career. The Bulls know they need to start buckling down late in games and reverse what has been a frustrating trend.
"It's very hard as a defense because we know we played good in the first, second and third quarter and going into the last drive in the fourth quarter, we're like, 'We're going to stop them just like we did,' and they just came up with the big play," sophomore defensive end Ryne Giddins said. "We have to finish. Finish strong, that's it."