Standing in the corridor outside the USF locker room following Saturday night’s Conference USA home opener against Louisville in Raymond James Stadium, senior middle linebacker Maurice Jones had a few words to sum up the Bulls’ recent trend at home.
Jones is one of a few Bulls never to experience defeat at home, so following a slew of dramatic events that resulted in a USF 31-28 double overtime victory against the Cardinals (4-1, 0-1 C-USA) in front of 36,044, he could only say one thing.
“In Raymond James Stadium, something always goes our way,” Jones said.
That’s been the case for USF (3-1, 2-0) since the final game of the 1999 season, when the Bulls lost to Hofstra at home. Since then, USF has had 21 consecutive home victories, the second longest streak in the nation. And they managed to continue it against one of the top programs in C-USA, a team that was undefeated and in front of the largest crowd ever to watch the Bulls play in RJS.
The players and the fans probably began believing something good was going to happen when kicker Santiago Gramatica stepped onto the field. Even with Gramatica’s early-season struggles, they had faith he would not miss the game winner. Gramatica was kicking in the same stadium as his older brother Martin, and with the Tampa Bay Bucs kicker watching from the sidelines, the junior came through with his first ever game-winning field goal, a 26-yarder that squeezed inside the left upright.
“I’ve had kicks that ended up being the game winner, but never in the clutch,” Gramatica said.
Although Gramatica had missed some kicks this season, including two last week against Army and a chip shot against Alabama, he never thought he was in a slump or needed to come through Saturday to thwart his troubles.
“I really didn’t need a confidence kick,” Gramatica said. “I was just trying to relax and remember the key points, just trying to make any other kick.”
Louisville could be credited with helping Gramatica relax. Instead of letting Gramatica just kick the field goal, the Cardinals called a timeout to try to “ice the kicker.” However, that strategy failed.
“I don’t know how (it affects) other kickers,” Gramatica said, “(but) to me, it helps me gather my thoughts and relax. I was just talking with (holder Brandon) Baker, you know, like we do in practice.”
USF coach Jim Leavitt didn’t waste any time to make the call and give his kicker a chance to end the game at the 9-yard line.
“You worry about handling the ball too many times, because you don’t want to fumble,” Leavitt said. “I told (offensive coordinator) Mike Hobbie we need eight yards, (and) I wanted to get eight yards because that’s where we thought Santiago was strong. And we got a little more than that, and we were right in the middle of the field.”
But what set the stage for the dramatic kick was an even more dramatic play on defense. After both teams scored in the first overtime, Louisville took possession first in the second overtime and were seemingly driving for another score. That’s when the momentum of the game finally shifted into USF’s favor.
“I told J.R. (Reed), I said ‘Either me or you has to make a big play, somebody has to make a big play,'” Jones said. “And what happens? A sophomore makes a big play.”
The sophomore was linebacker Devon Davis, who intercepted Louisville quarterback Stefan LeFors’ pass and nearly returned the ball for a touchdown. However, LeFors managed to run down Davis from behind.
Teammate Tim Jones teased Davis on the way to the locker room even though Davis injured his leg on the return.
“They’re going to talk about me and say, ‘Ah, you’re slow,’ and all that stuff,” Davis said. “But I don’t care about all that. We still won the game.”
And winning was the most important thing, especially with undefeated and nationally ranked TCU entering RJS on Friday to try and stop the Bulls’ home-winning streak.
“The biggest thing we talked about in the locker room was the short week with TCU … and being careful about getting too high on this win. You don’t want to get so high and all of the sudden not get ready for TCU,” Leavitt said.
But knowing the Ray-Jay mystique, things are just bound to go USF’s way.