USF coach Jim Leavitt preaches focus to his team all the time. Even in the face of games against the likes of No. 2 Oklahoma, Leavitt refuses to place added importance on any game, always referring to the next one as the biggest game.
In his own words, he’s a little boring.
Which makes it all the more attention-grabbing when the Bulls’ coach called Saturday’s 16-13 against Southern Miss the biggest home game in USF history.
“This is obviously the biggest win for us,” Leavitt said. “This is probably the best team to come in here that we’ve beaten. … Here at Raymond James, this night is the biggest night for us, I’d say for sure. Just because the quality of the team, Southern Miss is very good.”
Who could argue with the Bulls’ boss after the conclusion of USF’s dramatic victory?
Spurred on by a 41-7 drubbing at Hattiesburg, Miss., two years ago, the Bulls (4-2) took a 16-13 lead on a reverse to Hugh Smith with nine minutes and 31 seconds left to play in the game.
The action really heated up as the Bulls elected to go for a fourth-and-1 on the Golden Eagles’ 19, but USM snuffed a screen pass to DeJuan Green as USF passed up an opportunity for a field goal to put them up six.
“I did the right thing,” Leavitt said jokingly. “I wanted to get the first down. I know when I made that decision, I had no doubt what I was going to do. I did what I wanted to do. I wanted to keep them on their heels.”
Southern Miss did a good job of doing that on its own, as the Golden Eagles’ backup quarterback Dustin Almond was sacked on the next play by Shurron Pierson, the third of his school-record four on the night. Pierson caused a fumble, which senior Chris Daley recovered to put USF at the Southern Miss 14-yard line with 3:39 to go.
The Bulls handed three times to Vince Brewer to get down to the three to set up a touchdown that would have iced the game. But quarterback Marquel Blackwell couldn’t handle the snap from center Alex Herron, and USM safety Etric Pruitt recovered the ball at his own 1-yard line with 1:47 left to give the Golden Eagles one more chance to tie.
“It seemed like we were trying to give them the game,” Blackwell said. “That was just a careless play.”
The tension increased as the Golden Eagles drove down the field in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 28,181 cheering on the USF defense.
Almond went in for starter Micky D’Angelo late in the first quarter after safety Kevin Verpaele drilled D’Angelo on a blitz as he connected with Terrell Browden on the only USM touchdown.
He completed three straight passes after Pierson’s fourth sack to get the Eagles to USF’s 41. After an incompletion, Almond hit tailback Derrick Nix on the sideline to set up a fourth-and-2 on the 36-yard line with 15 seconds remaining. Almond found a stumbling Leroy Handy, who fell down at the 29 but made the catch for a first down. USM ran up to the line and handed off to Nix, who rushed two yards. The Golden Eagles quickly called timeout with two seconds remaining to set up the tying field goal. But Curt Jones’ 44-yard attempt sailed wide right to set off the Bulls’ jubilant celebration.
“My eyes were closed,” Brewer said. “I turned around hoping they would miss. I listened for the crowd reaction to figure out if he missed it.”