Jim Leavitt doesn’t have any new bruises, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the USF coach did. That’s because he’s so immersed in dissecting the Bulls’ opponent Saturday, No. 25 Bowling Green, that he may not be looking where he’s going.
“When I leave here I’m going to walk back to my office, and do you know what I’m going to be thinking?” Leavitt said. “When I walk through the Sun Dome on the way back to the office, I’m going to be thinking about how are we going to stop (their quarterback). I don’t know. How are we going to stop their passing attack? Their running attack? How are we going to move the ball on their defense? That’s all I’m going to be thinking about. That’s it.
“I’ll probably walk into a stop sign or something. I’m not trying to be funny. I’m being honest,” Leavitt said.
And he has a right to be concerned about Bowling Green. The Falcons (8-1) had more momentum than a speeding Hartline bus going for them before they got derailed last week by Northern Illinois. Bowling Green had climbed all the way to No. 16 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll before its 26-17 defeat to the Huskies, who USF trounced 37-6 Sept. 7, dropping it nine spots in the coaches’ rankings and completely out of the AP poll.
The Falcons enter Saturday’s matchup as the first ranked team to come to Raymond James Stadium and could pose the biggest challenge yet to the Bulls’ 18-game home winning streak.
“The fact that they are in the Top 25, that’s a big challenge for South Florida (because) we haven’t been able to beat a Top-25 team yet,” senior defensive end Chris Daley said.
Daley and the rest of the Bulls (7-2) will be looking for a big finish as they close out their home careers. It’s been quite a run for Daley, quarterback Marquel Blackwell, receivers DeAndrew Rubin and Hugh Smith, defensive tackles Tavares Jurineack and Greg Walls and the entire 14-man senior class. With Blackwell at the helm, the Bulls have gone 23-1 at home, including their current 18-game run. In that time, USF has knocked off Troy State when it was No. 1 in Division I-AA in 2000 and held out to beat Southern Miss by a field goal earlier this season. But those games might pale in comparison to beating a ranked Bowling Green team Saturday.
“We’ve had teams come in that have been decent,” Leavitt said. “It’s not like we haven’t played anybody. But they are very good, and it’s exciting.
“The whole world is wrapped up on Bowling Green and should be because they are very good (and) very talented. They are the big story in the country this year.”
In addition to being one of the last four undefeated teams in the nation prior to Saturday, the Falcons possess a high-octane offense. Bowling Green is averaging 44 points per game, third in the nation.
The Falcons’ attack rests on the shoulders (and the legs) of quarterback Josh Harris. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound sophomore is as threatening throwing as he is running.
The son of former NFL linebacker M.L. Harris, he is 11th in total offense, racking up 283 yards per contest by himself. As a runner, Harris has 577 yards, second on the team, and as a passer, he’s completed 57.3 percent of his passes for 1,970 yards and 16 touchdowns. Harris torched Missouri Sept. 14 for 311 yards through the air, while running over Central Michigan for 138 yards and three touchdowns Oct. 12.
“I don’t know (how we’re going to stop him),” Leavitt said. “I mean I’m telling you, I do not know. You tell me. If you get everybody in there to stop the quarterback, he’ll throw the ball. You get everybody out there to stop the pass, and they run the ball. Aren’t they about leading the nation in points? It doesn’t seem like too many people have done a very good job yet.
“Northern Illinois did a pretty good job,” Leavitt said. “What they did was they tried not to let them have the ball. They have such a strong running attack (that) they figured you’re not going to stop them running or throwing, and the only way you can stop it is don’t give them the ball. If (Harris) doesn’t have the ball in his hands, then he can’t run or throw. That’s basically what Northern Illinois did, I think. They just ran the ball so well that they controlled the clock.”
The Bulls will have to go with a different attack though since they bear no resemblance to the Huskies, who handed off 40 times to tailback Michael Turner for 192 yards. USF’s season highs in rushing and attempts are 267 and 50, both of which came against Division I-AA Charleston Southern.
Regardless of how the Bulls plan to attack the Falcons, Daley remains confident that the USF seniors have something left.
“I just try to go out there and make big plays, put our defense in situations to help out the offense and give the ball back to Marquel and the highly talented and potent offense that we have so they can put it in the end zone. We haven’t seen yet what the offense can do at its full potential.”
Anthony Gagliano covers USF football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org