USF coach Jim Leavitt said the character of his football team would be tested Saturday against Memphis, especially after the Bulls lost to UAB the week before on a last-second field goal, which likely ended any chance at a bowl bid this season.
And even though the tough loss in USF’s home finale loomed over their heads going into the Liberty Bowl on Saturday, the Bulls managed a 21-16 victory against the Tigers, finishing the regular season at 7-4, including a 5-3 mark in the team’s inaugural season in Conference USA.
“We talked about the character of this team and how people thought we were dead, (and) we wouldn’t be able to do this and that,” Leavitt said on the WTBN 570 AM post-game report. “Our guys just played so hard, so well. It’s the biggest win we’ve had in the short eight years, I promise you.”
“Some people stood up and showed a lot of character,” Leavitt said in a press release. “We said this was a character game. We said it was bigger than a bowl game, bigger than a championship. It was about the character of our program and what USF has developed in the past eight years. That’s the essence of our program, guys that battle and fight.”
One person that battled the entire game was senior free safety J.R. Reed. Reed arguably had the best game of his career with seven tackles, three interceptions, a fumble recovery and a pair of touchdowns.
The first touchdown came on the opening kickoff of the second half, when Reed took the ball at the USF 4-yard line and raced 96 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 7.
“Quinton Callum made a good block and after that I just knew I had the kicker to beat,” Reed said in the radio post-game show.
After Memphis regained the lead on a field goal, Reed put the Bulls on top for good when he scooped up Derron Parquet’s fumble and raced 45 yards for another score, putting the Bulls ahead 14-10.
It was the seniors who seemed to step up Saturday, especially on defense. One week after the offense committed a school-record six turnovers against the Blazers, USF’s defense forced a school-record tying seven turnovers against Memphis.
Senior strong safety Kevin Verpaele had a hand in virtually all three Memphis fumbles, while senior linebacker Maurice Jones had a team-high nine tackles and almost snagged an interception late in the game.
And even though the offense was limited to 192 total yards, it was the seniors who provided the unit’s big plays when needed.
Senior running back DeJuan Green scored the offense’s only touchdown when he scampered in from four yards out early in the fourth quarter, giving USF a 21-10 lead. And senior wide receiver Chris Iskra, who was injured in the team’s first practice and has battled a recent hamstring injury, came up with a big 58-yard catch to help keep a late drive alive, just his second catch all season.
But it wasn’t just the seniors who helped the Bulls knock off Memphis, a team which had won five consecutive games, on the road. Reed said the seniors were quick to avoid taking all of the credit in the 2003 season finale.
“We showed a lot of character,” Reed said. “The younger guys, they put it on the field and put us seniors out the right way. It feels great to win, but it would have been terrible to lose my last game ever playing.”