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USF’s defense attempts to measure up in Miami Beach Bowl

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Now that the USF Bulls are in a bowl game, can they prove that they belong?

More precisely, can the defense of the Bulls hang with the high-powered offense of Western Kentucky? In Monday’s Miami Beach Bowl, can USF be Hilltopper stoppers?

In a lot of ways, this game is about Willie Taggart, who coaches USF and used to coach (and play for) Western Kentucky. More than that, it will be about USF trying to slow down the Hilltoppers.

Despite the fact Western plays in what is left of Conference USA, the Hilltoppers are quite the offensive show behind quarterback Brandon Doughty, who just won his second straight league MVP award. Doughty is special. He’s 24th all-time in FBS yardage and 16th in touchdowns, ahead of players such as Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.

Doughty was second in the nation in passing this season, and he leads the sixth-rated offense, an offense that has had more production than all four playoff teams. The Hilltoppers are second in the nation in scoring, one point behind Baylor. The Hilltoppers scored more than 40 points nine times this season.

USF, on the other hand, is only 35th in the nation on defense and only 57th against the pass. Defensive end Eric Lee has 11 tackles for loss and four sacks.

Much of USF’s ability to slow down Western Kentucky’s offense depends on how well the Bulls can run the ball. Western Kentucky is only 67th in the country in rushing defense, while the Bulls are 13th in running the ball with Marlon Mack (22nd in the country with 1,272 yards) and Quinton Flowers (tied for 74th with 883).

Doughty has weapons to spread out all over South Florida. Receiver Taywan Taylor is fourth in the nation in receiving yards, having caught 79 passes for 1,363 yards and 17 scores. Throw in the 851 yards caught by Nicholas Norris (58 catches) and the 752 by Jared Dangerfield (76 catches), then throw in running back Anthony Webb, who is 14 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing, and you have a dangerous bunch. The offensive line is ninth nationally, giving up only 14 sacks in 13 games.

In other words, the Bulls’ defense has a huge test in front of it. The Bulls, in particular, will have to get past a solid Western Kentucky offensive line. The Bulls are 15th in the country in tackles for loss and 24th in sacks. Hilltoppers’ coach Jeff Brohm refers to them as “the best front we’ve seen all year,” which isn’t bad when you consider that Western played LSU.

“It’s a very good defense,” Brohm said of USF. “They’ve been good on defense the last three years, that’s for sure. This year, they’ve played at a high level as well, but their offense has picked things up. When you have both units working well together, you’re going to win some football games.

“Defensively, their front four is good. They’re talented. They’ve got length, they can run, they can rush the passer. They’ve got strength.”

The teams play Monday at 2:30 p.m.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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