The USF football team has blinders on. Neither last year’s 20-17 loss in the final seconds to Northern Illinois, nor upcoming games with Arkansas and Oklahoma can sway the Bulls’ focus from their matchup with Northern Illinois 7 p.m. Saturday. But USF coach Jim Leavitt refuses to use any of that as motivation as he emphasizes a business-like attitude to his Bulls.
“I really don’t stress those kind of things,” Leavitt said. “People might not believe me, but I don’t. We focus on the team we’re going to play. We’re a different football team than we were last year, and they’re a different football team than they were last year. Whether you use something like that or not, there is enough motivation for our football team. They know they’re playing possibly the best team in the MAC, and I think that’s motivation enough.
“It’s another home game and another opportunity against an awfully talented football team. I don’t think you need to really use much more than that; I really don’t.”
Even the Bulls seem unfazed by last year’s heartbreaking road loss when NIU’s Steve Azar booted a 45-yard field goal as time expired. Senior quarterback Marquel Blackwell, one of the team captains, dismissed the notion that the Bulls will be more fired up by last year’s outcome.
“Not at all,” Blackwell said. “That’s in the past. We can’t do too much about that. We’ll never have that game back. But our expectations are real high for ourselves this year, and we have to take it a game at a time.”
What the Bulls won’t dismiss from last year’s contest is the performance of Huskies’ running back Thomas Hammock. As a junior, Hammock shredded the USF defense for 177 yards in the 2001 season opener. Hammock’s 34 carries tied the record for the most ever by an opposing runner, and the senior has put up back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
“It drives me a lot because their running back almost set a single-game rushing record,” senior defensive end Chris Daley said. “I don’t want to have that done on us. We have to stay in our gaps and have no mental breakdowns.”
Last year’s NIU game was also the debut for the Bulls’ no-huddle offense. While USF started slowly with that game, Blackwell did hook up with DeAndrew Rubin for two 50-yard touchdown passes. The Huskies limited Blackwell to 223 yards passing, his third lowest output of the 2001 season. However, the Bulls revved it up from there, averaging 35.2 points per game last season.
“At that point in time, it was our first game in the system, not to make any excuses,” Blackwell said. “We watched the film and saw a lot of things we didn’t handle, a lot of missed assignments.
“We’re a long ways ahead of where we were (then),” Blackwell said. “We still should have won. It wasn’t anything big. It was the little things – not taking what was there (and) trying to force the issue. From the first game last year to the second game, we made a big leap, so hopefully we’ll continue to improve this year and keep it going.”
Something else the Bulls will want to keep going is their domination at Raymond James Stadium. USF has won 14 straight games at home, matching Washington and Texas for the fifth longest streak in the nation. The Bulls are also sporting a seven-game winning streak dating back to the fifth game of last season. Unfazed by it all, Leavitt remains diligent in concentrating on the next game, the next victory.
“I really don’t think much about last year,” he said. “I take it one game at a time. I focus on the game that we’re about to play, and there’s really not a whole lot else that comes into my mindset. I pretty much focus on who we’re playing, and I don’t think about anything else.”
Anthony Gagliano covers football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org