Bulls open season

After weeks of preparation and anticipation, the USF football team will take the field for the first time tonight as a Division I-A team.

The Bulls will be facing the Northern Illinois Huskies on the road in DeKalb, Ill.

Coach Jim Leavitt said after weeks of practicing twice a day, the team is excited to finally play.

?I don?t want to wait any longer and they don?t want to wait any longer,? he said. ?Their tempers are there; they?re tired of hitting each other.?

Leavitt said Northern Illinois will be a tough opponent.

?I know we?re playing an awfully good football team,? he said.

The Bulls are picked to be heavy underdogs in the contest. Leavitt said a team starting out in Division I-A has to get used to being picked to lose on a weekly basis.

?We?re going to probably be 21 or 40 or 60-point underdogs every game,? he said. ?Until you beat somebody you?re not going to get any respect.?

The challenge for the Bulls will be to stop a potent Northern Illinois offense that dominated several opposing defenses last season.

The Huskie offense lead the team to a 6-5 record in 2000. During the season, the team averaged 37.2 points per game and scored more than 40 points on six different occasions while operating in a basic I-Formation set.

This year?s version of the Northern Illinois offense will enter the game with several key returning starters. Of big concern for the Bulls will be running backs Thomas Hammock and Michael Turner. They rushed for 1,083 yards and 983 yards, respectively, last season. Hammock was also sixth in the NCAA in scoring and 12th in rushing last season.

These two stars are complemented by returning quarterback Chris Finlen, who completed last season with 1,875 yards and 11 touchdowns, while completing 56.7 percent of his passes.

Safety Joe Morgan said the Bulls? defense will have to be ready for Hammock and Turner.

?They?re a power team, they run the ball right at you,? he said. ?We?ve got to be prepared for a brawl.?

Morgan said the key for the defense is to operate as a unit.

?We?ve got to play together, be on one page and one accord,? he said. ?We?re just coming to the game fired up.?

Morgan said the fact that the Bulls are underdogs is just making them even more ready to play.

?We love it. It just means they think we?re pushovers,? he said. ?We?re ready to make some noise.?

Defensively, Northern Illinois will be anchored by linebacker Larry Williams, who had four sacks last season, and cornerback Vince Thompson, who had five interceptions. Leavitt said the Bulls? offense must look to avoid the big mistake.

?Our offense is going to have to keep away from turnovers,? he said.

Quarterback Marquel Blackwell said the Bulls? offense is adapting to new offensive coordinator Mike Hobbie?s system.

?Everybody?s progressing in the new system; everybody?s comfortable,? he said. ?We?re ready.?

Blackwell said the Bulls are ready for the challenge of a good Northern Illinois team.

?They?re a well-coached team,? he said. ?They run the ball well and have got a good defense.?

Blackwell said he really hadn?t thought too much about the odds given the Bulls for the game, but said he likes the role of underdog.

?I haven?t really thought about it,? he said. ?But that?s good, I always root for the underdog anyway.?

The Northern Illinois coaching staff is led by head coach Joe Novak. In his five years as the Huskie coach, Novak?s teams have posted a combined 14 wins and 41 losses. Novak said coming into the game he didn?t believe the Bulls should be such heavy underdogs.

?I don?t know how people make those predictions,? he said. ?(The Bulls) have some skilled athletes.?

Novak said it?s hard to predict if his offense will be as potent this year as it was in 2000.

?Part of the reason we?ve been so successful is because of three offensive linemen who have since graduated and are in NFL camps,? he said. ?I think it?s going to be a lot closer than people think.?

Novak said he has known Leavitt for a long time and hopes his team is ready to take on what will be a well-coached Bulls squad.

?You?re never sure you?re prepared to play,? he said. ?We?ll just have to see on Thursday.?

Leavitt agreed with Novak, saying he won?t know until game time how well his squad will perform. Leavitt said his team would also have to be at its best to beat Northern Illinois.

?Northern Illinois is very strong and we?re going to have to play one whale of a football game to win,? he said. ?I know our guys are going to play hard ? I know they?ll lay it on the line.?

Rob Brannon covers football and can be reached at oraclerob@yahoo.com