South Florida is not a Top-25 football team.
But the Bulls are closer than they’ve ever been after a convincing 29-7 victory against No. 25 Bowling Green Saturday. USF (8-2) received votes in both the AP poll (four) and the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll (two) for the first time Sunday.
It couldn’t come soon enough for a USF team that was wondering if it would ever get any recognition after watching Northern Illinois and Southern Miss, two teams the Bulls beat earlier this season, receive votes.
“I sit and wonder, ‘What’s going through their heads?'” senior quarterback Marquel Blackwell said. “They’re probably sitting waiting for us to fail, so they can say ‘I told you so.’
“But you have to keep believing. If you don’t believe in yourself, then no one’s going to believe in you.”
In front of scouts from the GMAC Bowl and the Motor City Bowl, the Bulls extended the nation’s second-longest home winning streak (19) by overpowering the Falcons (8-2). Bowling Green entered the contest as a statistical juggernaut, averaging more than 475 yards of total offense and 44 points a game.
USF coach Jim Leavitt wondered earlier in the week how he would stop Falcons’ quarterback Josh Harris, but the Bulls’ defense held the multi-dimensional threat to 84 yards passing and 68 rushing before he was pulled midway through the fourth quarter.
“Their defensive line controlled the game, and our receivers had trouble getting open,” Bowling Green coach Urban Meyer said. “They had a lot of speed on defense.”
Harris was horribly outdueled by USF senior quarterback Marquel Blackwell in his home finale. Including eclipsing 10,000 yards for his career with a seven-yard, second-quarter completion to DeAndrew Rubin, Blackwell extended his streak of passes without an interception to 199, putting him 25 shy of the NCAA record held by Virginia’s Matt Blundin in 1991.
Blackwell also kept pace with Harris on the ground, carrying nine times for 56 yards, three of which came in the first quarter to give the Bulls a new set of downs.
“I don’t compete against anybody,” Blackwell said. “I just try to go out to execute the gameplan.”
While the USF players didn’t want to compare the numbers, the Bulls made the game lopsided in every category. USF accumulated 383 yards of offense, while the Falcons managed only 226, 49 of which came on a drive led by backup quarterback Andy Sahm with less than three minutes to play in the game.In fact, other than two miscues in the punting game, Bowling Green never penetrated inside the Bulls’ 20.
The Falcons’ first drive, which resulted in their only points of the game, came after Cornell McGrady’s block of a Devin Sanderson punt put BGSU at the USF 18.
Then, in the third quarter, Sanderson mishandled the snap on a punt and was tackled at the Bulls’ 27. However, the USF defense provided a big play as John Miller laid a punishing hit on Harris on a draw, forcing and recovering a fumble at the 4-yard line.
While USF has yet to be ranked as a Division I-A school, the Bulls held down a spot in the I-AA rankings for 24 consecutive weeks from the middle of the 1998 season until the end of 1999, when USF became a provisional I-A member.
However, whether a victory vs. a ranked opponent or receiving votes in the poll helps USF make a bowl remains to be seen. The Bulls’ season finale is Saturday at Houston.
“They’re still trying to find a way to shortchange us,” senior wideout Hugh Smith said. “They’re thinking that we’re young and that we have to improve a lot. We have something good going on around here. Give us the opportunity to make something happen.
“We’ve beat some good teams, a Top-25 team. What more do they want us to do?”
Anthony Gagliano covers USF football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org