Pair of ‘sweet’ interceptions turns tides for USF
Published: Monday, November 5, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 08:11
For what seemed like an eternity, the ball floated, end-over-end, through the evening sky. Then, in a split second, everything changed.
The streak was over, and momentum had finally found its spot on the USF sideline. For the first time since the final game of the 2011 season, the USF football team’s defense had an interception.
And then, in less than six minutes, it happened again. Twice in the final six minutes and 27 seconds, the USF defense stepped up with an interception, after a string of games with close calls and no results, a streak that left USF as the only team in Division I football without an interception for nearly five weeks.
Soon after the interception drought ended, the victory drought ended as well. With two plays, the Bulls had won a Big East football game, for only the second time in two years. In two plays, the Bulls had reversed the bad luck that has plagued the team for a large part of two seasons.
With 6:27 to go in USF’s game against Connecticut, junior defensive lineman Tevin Mims laid into Husky quarterback Chandler Whitmer, forcing an errant pass that floated down field, right into the arms of senior safety Jon Lejiste, who brought in the first interception of the season and set off a celebration on the USF sideline.
“When the ball went up, the ball fluttered up in the air like a punt,” coach Skip Holtz said. “I saw Jon Lejiste go up at the high point and I thought, ‘Not with your hands, just catch it with your body,’ but he went up and caught the ball and made a textbook grab.”
Lejiste, who was starting in place of the injured junior Jaquez Jenkins — who had USF’s last interception in the final game of 2011 — said he just wanted to make sure he made the catch.
“We happened to get a little pressure on him, and he threw up a wobbly pass and I got under it,” he said. “All I could think was, ‘Don’t drop the ball, don’t drop the ball.’”
Shortly after the Bulls celebrated the momentum-shifting interception, a field goal by senior kicker Maikon Bonani from 50 yards out gave the Bulls a seven-point lead and set up the defense to end the game.
With 50 seconds remaining and the Huskies deep in USF territory, the USF defensive line — active all night in racking up four sacks and five tackles for loss — struck the final blow.
Sophomore Todd Chandler smacked a Whitmer pass in the air and sophomore defensive lineman Elkino Watson secured the airborne pass for the team’s second interception in six minutes, sealing USF’s first win in nearly two months.
“My eyes got really big, especially because it was a closing situation,” Watson said. “But I wouldn’t have been able to make the play if it wasn’t for No. 95, Todd Chandler. If he hadn’t tipped the ball it wouldn’t have fallen into my hand like that.”
Holtz said the second interception was even better than the one that broke the season-long drought.
“The one that was sweeter was the one that sealed the game,” he said. “The first one was great to break the streak, but I couldn’t have written a better script than for the defense to seal the game with the turnover at the end.”
After a week off in which the Bulls will look to get back to full health and build on a strong defensive showing — one that the team achieved without senior linebacker Sam Barrington, who was suspended for the game after he was cited for driving with a revoked license — the Bulls will head to Coral Gables to play the Miami Hurricanes, with a newfound ability to close games coming with them.
“I won’t say that the defense lost the last couple of games, but we weren’t able to close out the way that we wanted to,” Watson said. “So we were finally able to close out the game, and it was great to do that.”