The sixth season of USF football kicks off at 7 p.m. tonight at Raymond James Stadium when the Bulls host the Florida Atlantic Owls.
FAU, a Division I-AA Independent guided by legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger, will open its second year of football, playing its first-ever Division I-A opponent. In the Bulls’ first-ever game vs. a D-IA team, USF went to San Diego State and got walloped 41-12 in 1999. This game also marks USF’s first opportunity to play a team from Florida.
“It’s the first time we’ve had the opportunity to play another team from the state of Florida,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “It’s fun and exciting with all those guys from the same high schools and from different high schools. They know each other, so it should be a lot of fun.”
As a second-year program, the Owls return every player from a year ago. FAU recorded its first victory in school history by upsetting No. 22 Bethune-Cookman 31-28 in its second game. Quarterback Jared Allen threw for 1,185 yards in 2001, but he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and fired more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six).
On the ground, the Owls displayed a high-powered rushing attack led by Doug Parker. A 5-foot-11, 217-pound sophomore, Parker scored eight touchdowns and paced the squad with 635 yards. Parker also tied for the team lead in receptions (22), but the Owls had just three receivers with 20 catches or more.
“I am really impressed with the way they run,” Leavitt said. “They are athletic, and I mean on the offensive and defensive line. They move well. That impresses me.
“Their running backs are good, and they have real good speed at receiver,” Leavitt said. “I like the team. They look pretty good to me. They have an experienced quarterback with Jared Allen.”
The Bulls go into the contest without Huey Whittaker, the team’s leading receiver in 2001, but there are a plethora of wideouts waiting to fill his spot. Former Florida transfer Elgin Hicks will make his first start as a Bull, and redshirt freshmen C.J. Lewis and Joe Bain should see increased playing time.
Inside, seniors Ryan Hearn and Hugh Smith figure to start with the multi-dimensional Brian Fisher taking plenty of snaps too, as the Bulls try to avoid losing to a Division I-AA team for the first time since a 42-23 defeat to Hofstra to end the 1999 season.
“They recognize they are playing another team that hasn’t been around all that long either, though,” Leavitt said. “We played New Hampshire (in 1999), and I saw they were around for 103 years. It’s not like we’ve been around a long, long time. I know they’ll come in with a lot of confidence and feel like if things go their way, they’ll certainly have a chance to win. We know it’s going to be a pretty competitive situation.”