The year 2001 welcomed South Florida to Division I-A football after four seasons in I-AA.
USF finished the year with an 8-3 record and was ranked No. 30 in The New York Times computer poll at the end of the season.
The season started inauspiciously for the Bulls, however, as they were defeated 20-17 at Northern Illinois in Week 1. Despite leading 17-7 in the third quarter, the Bulls lost when NIU’s Steve Azar kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired.
In defiance of the oddsmakers, the Bulls earned a nationally recognized win against heavily favored Pittsburgh in Week 2. Starting quarterback Marquel Blackwell started his breakout season by setting a school record with 37 completions in the 35-26 road victory, the biggest win in the short history of the program.
“They just kept coming. And coming. And coming,” Pittsburgh’s defensive tackle Joe Conlin said. “I can say they got us.”
The Bulls could not put together a road-winning streak when they faced Memphis in Week 3. The Tigers scored all they would need in the first quarter for a 17-9 victory, as USF’s offense failed to put up any points. The game ended on the Memphis 2-yard line, as Blackwell’s pass to Huey Whittaker was batted away.
When USF opened in front of 25,156 fans for its first time as a member of I-A in Raymond James Stadium, it defeated North Texas 28-10 with then-season highs of 41 rushes and 126 yards on the ground. A season-ending leg injury to defensive end Emerson Morris was one of the few sore points in an easy Bulls win.
Against Utah in Salt Lake City the following week, the Bulls would have their worst and final loss of the season in a 52-21 drubbing. The Utes scored the most points ever against the Bulls and gave them the third worst defeat in school history.
The Bulls spent the rest of the season winning at home, starting with a 40-21 victory against Connecticut. Blackwell led the charge, scoring a total of five touchdowns, rushing for a school-record-tying three and throwing passes of 14 and 27 yards. Chris Daley also tied a school record with three sacks.
The next game Blackwell topped his scoring performance by tallying six touchdowns in a 42-12 win against Southern Utah. The Bulls improved their all-time record against I-AA teams to 22-12.
USF’s next game was one for the record books. Against Liberty, the Bulls set game highs in yards rushing, yards per rush, touchdown rushes, touchdown passes and total offense in a 68-37 onslaught, the highest combined total for a USF game. The team set records with 42 first-half points and 580 total yards, while Blackwell passed for a school-record four touchdowns, a feat he had accomplished twice before.
In the first quarter, Blackwell also broke Chad Barnhardt’s single-season records for attempts and completions, and cornerback Bernard Brown’s 86-yard interception return for a touchdown was the longest interception return in school history.
A season-best turnout of 32,711 fans came to see the Bulls improve to 4-1 in Homecoming games, defeating Houston 45-6 for their first win in three tries against Conference USA teams. Blackwell continued his assault on the school-record books, breaking the single-season passing mark previously owned by Barnhardt. He ended the night with 2,476 yards through the ninth game, surpassing the old record of 2,362.
In the 10th game, USF scored 14 third-quarter points to break open a close game to defeat Western Illinois 48-17. The Bulls established a school-record streak of four games with at least 40 points, and running back Quinton Callum tied the USF standard with four touchdowns.
To cap off its second consecutive perfect season at Raymond James Stadium, USF used its defense and special teams, which got three second-half scores, to defeat Utah State 34-13. The Bulls’ sixth consecutive victory was another school record, while their 13th straight home win was the joint fourth longest streak (tied with Texas) in the country.
Blackwell added 129 passing yards in the final game and finished the season passing for 2,882 yards, 20 touchdowns and an average of 262 yards a game. He was also a threat on the ground, rushing for 241 net yards, nine touchdowns and 21.9 yards a game.
Blackwell was nationally ranked No. 11 in total offense, No. 11 in points responsible for and No. 8 in passing.
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