Daniels focused on little things to prepare
There's more than one B.J. in the Tampa Bay sports spotlight this weekend.
While Mr. Upton does his best to help the Tampa Bay Rays continue their all-out sprint against the odds, the USF Bulls quarterback with the surname of Daniels faces his own massive challenge Saturday afternoon in a showcase matchup against the fourth-ranked Florida State Seminoles.
For the latter B.J., the task at hand is monumental yet familiar in a strangely re-assuring way.
As every Bulls fan in the land remembers, Daniels traveled to his hometown of Tallahassee as a freshman in 2009 and engineered a stunning 17-7 upset of the heavily favored Seminoles. It was a banner day for the hometown kid who hadn't been recruited by FSU: two touchdowns and 215 passing yards, with another 126 rushing yards on 23 carries.
Those were different times, indeed — with Jimbo Fisher yet to take the reins from the legendary Bobby Bowden and original USF football head coach Jim Leavitt still on the job with the up-and-coming Bulls, a year away from being replaced by Skip Holtz.
But one thing hasn't changed: Very few people — other than the most ardent Bulls supporters — imagined that Daniels or USF could defeat FSU then. And the same holds true today, as the 2-2 Bulls host the 4-0 Seminoles at 6 p.m. Saturday in a sold-out, nationally televised contest at Raymond James Stadium, a much-anticipated, marquee matchup on USF's schedule.
That's just fine with the Bulls' 22-year-old senior quarterback, who has amassed 1,142 passing yards in four games this season along with nine touchdown tosses and six interceptions.
"I don't think anybody gave us a chance in Tallahassee, either," Daniels said this week. "Especially me playing as a freshman, and it was my first game starting. But we're definitely not even worrying or thinking about that. My biggest thing is doing what we need to do and focus on the little things like penalties and things that killed us last game."
The Bulls are coming off a 31-27 loss at Ball State, which won the game on a 19-yard touchdown pass with 1:02 remaining — just three minutes after Daniels had engineered a 99-yard scoring drive that had given his team the lead. The loss marked the Bulls' first setback to a non-BCS opponent since becoming a part of the Big East Conference seven years ago.
It also came on the heels of being soundly beaten, 23-13, the previous week at home by Rutgers after wins over Chattanooga (34-13) and Nevada (32-31) to open the season.
But none of those games come remotely close to rivaling the hype and excitement of hosting FSU, in spite of the fact the Seminoles are 17-point favorites — and that spread could be charitable given the way they've been destroying the opposition this season. The Seminoles rolled their way to a head-spinning 667 total yards last week in a 49-37 victory over Clemson, the only serious competition they've faced so far.
The fact that they've also rushed for more than 200 yards in all four games doesn't bode well for a Bulls defense that allowed 549 yards in its narrow win over Nevada, 421 to Rutgers and 413 to Ball State, and has a secondary still in search of its first interception of the season.
Factor in that Florida State is the only team that leads the nation in 10 categories (including fourth in offense and second in defense), and the degree of difficulty in the Bulls' mission becomes clear.
The Seminoles are also playing the revenge card, wanting to pay back Daniels and Co. for humbling them on their home turf three years ago.
"A lot of my friends and guys I know on the team and people from back home are in my ear, talking about it being a revenge thing," Daniels said. "But in no way, shape or form am I focused on that. This is definitely more about our program and doing what we need to do to get a victory. As far as a personal thing or anything like that, I'm not worrying about it."
Daniels, 6-foot, 217 pounds, remains the key to making things happen for the offense, the axis around which everything else turns. The fifth-year player has a 20-17 career record and boasts the sixth-best passing yardage total (9,333) in Big East history. Still, he doesn't regard what he does as a one-man show by any means.
"I don't think it is at all," he said. "I still have 10 other guys on the offensive side of the ball doing their job. It takes all 11 to do the job to be successful as offense. When things break down, I just try to do what I can to help out. There are still guys who do their job and catch the ball. There's no particular weight on my shoulders, I just do whatever I can to help out and make plays."
His FSU counterpart, 6-foot-5, 245-pound EJ Manuel, has played an equally integral role since taking over the starting job last year after starter Christian Ponder began his NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings. Manuel is suddenly being mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate in light of his monumental outing against Clemson (380 passing yards, 102 rushing yards).
Manuel already ranks as the career completion leader at FSU, fueled by his phenomenal start in 2012: a completion percentage of 73.4, 905 passing yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception.
But the daunting numbers haven't dampened USF's resolve — certainly not Holtz — with the Bulls still holding a 1-0 lifetime mark against FSU.
"Florida State week is always an emotional week for our players, for our coaches, for our fan base," Holtz said. "Any time we have an opportunity to play what I consider a geographical rivalry game, it always creates a lot of excitement and energy."
For Daniels, it will be extra special facing longtime friends from Tallahassee.
"It'll be fun and exciting — a lot of the guys I'm very familiar with," he said. "So I played against them before in high school and know them on a personal level and work out with them in the summer sometimes when I go back. It's a familiar thing to me to look across the field and know who those guys are. But I have to focus on my keys and reads and not the personal relationship with the guy who might be on the other side of the ball."
For everyone else in the USF universe, the focus will be on the B.J. that helped the Bulls stun FSU once — and will be doing all he can to repeat the most unlikely feat.