BIRMINGHAM — It was simply a tale of two halves for the USF football team. Actually, it was a 28-minute fairy tale that eventually erupted into 32-minute nightmare.
For the first 28 minutes of the Bulls’ 40-17 loss against Alabama at Legion Field in Birmingham, USF was making a bid to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the opening weekend of college football in a game nationally televised on ESPN.
In the beginning, everything seemed to go USF’s way. Ronnie Banks guided the offense to three scoring drives, while Maurice Jones and J.R. Reed helped lead a fierce defense that stymied the Crimson Tide. The Bulls even managed to silence all but 1,200-plus green and gold specks in a crowd of 76,780 fans.
But with less than two minutes in the second quarter remaining, Alabama finally broke into the game in a big way, giving USF a taste of things to come. Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle led the offense on an 80-yard touchdown drive that took only 1:15 seconds off the clock.
On the ensuing kickoff, Reed fumbled the ball and Alabama recovered, setting up a game-tying 40-yard field goal as time expired.
“(The Bulls) were the ones making plays early,” Alabama coach Mike Shula said. “But finally we made a play. I think the key was the two-minute drill going into the half because it really helped give the guys confidence.
“Even though it was tied up at halftime, I thought we had the momentum.”
The Crimson Tide had stolen the momentum and coincidentally stolen the show, shutting out the Bulls in the second half while putting up 23 points, part of a string of 33 unanswered points.
“I thought we were OK,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “Being tied going into halftime, I thought we had a real shot. I didn’t know we’d wear down like we did.”
Alabama took its opening possession of the second half and moved down the field for a field goal to take a 20-17 lead, its first lead of the game. However, the game slipped away from the Bulls following their ensuing possession, which resulted in a punt after three plays.
Alabama’s Shaud Williams returned Brandon Baker’s punt 73 yards for a touchdown, ultimately sealing the game for the Crimson Tide and a victory in Shula’s debut as Alabama’s head coach.
“The punt return really broke our back,” Leavitt said. “Those things can’t happen.
“We obviously didn’t do enough at halftime. I mean you can jump up and down and break a locker or sing a song or whatever, but the guys have got to come out and play.”
With the loss, the Bulls had their seven-game winning streak snapped and fell to 0-3 against the Southeastern Conference, losing by an average of 26 points. The Bulls also fell to 0-4 when the crowd exceeds 55,000 people.
Banks also became the first USF quarterback to lose in his debut. He completed 17-of-33 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown, but failed to complete a pass following the third quarter.
It was evident for Banks and the rest of the Bulls what improvements need to be made in order to obtain the type of status of an Alabama-type program, and it’s one needed improvement that ultimately cost the Bulls the game.
“That’s why Alabama is the way they are,” Banks said. “They play 60 minutes of football, and we have to get to that point. If we don’t play 60 minutes, we’ll never get to that.”