In its first game in Division I-A, the USF football team lost a heartbreaking 20-17 decision against the Northern Illinois Huskies.
A 42-yard field goal from Huskie kicker Steve Azar with no time left on the clock proved to be the difference. The final score was the culmination of a 13-point Huskie rally in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls, listed as heavy underdogs in the contest, came out with a fast-paced, no-huddle offense. They didn?t waste any time in putting the season?s first touchdown on the board.
With 12:02 left in the first quarter and on the first drive of the game, quarterback Marquel Blackwell found receiver DeAndrew Rubin for a 57-yard touchdown strike.
After the touchdown, however, Northern Illinois answered quickly with their potent running attack.
Lead by standouts Thomas Hammock and Larry Williams, NIU sustained an 80-yard drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Hammock.
The remainder of the first half was marked by hard-hitting defense and a furious pace, and the score remained tied until late in the half.
As the momentum appeared to be shifting, NIU drove deep into USF territory. But linebacker Kawika Mitchell put a stop to the threat recovering a fumble on the Bull 20 yard line.
After the recovery, the Bulls’ offense wasted little time in countering. With 2:25 left in the half, Blackwell hooked up with Rubin again, this time for a 57-yard touchdown. The Bulls took a 14-7 advantage to the halftime locker room.
USF finished the first half with 170 yards of passing offense, highlighted by the two touchdowns. The rushing game struggled, however, as the Bulls were only able to gain 15 total yards. The Bulls were also a weak one of 1-8 down conversions.
The second half opened with USF carrying the momentum. The defense remained strong, and the offense immediately went on a 15-play drive down to the Huskie 1-yard line.
But that?s where the drive would end.
In one of the game?s major turning points, the Bulls failed to get into the end zone and were forced to settle for a 21-yard field goal by freshman kicker Santiago Gramatica, the first of his career.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, these would be their last points of the game. The Bulls offense went to a running attack, seemingly trying to grind the game out. During this period, the Bulls received good play from running backs Clenton Crossley and Vince Brewer.
And for most of the third quarter, the defense was able to hold NIU to virtually nothing on offense.
But the tide of the game changed with three minutes left in the third quarter. Crossley fumbled the ball on the Bulls? 28-yard line.
NIU capitalized quickly, scoring on an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Finlen to tight end Matt Dunker.
The Bulls were plagued throughout the game and particularly in the fourth quarter by penalties. USF was penalized 11 times for 96 yards during the contest.
The Huskies continued to dominate the game in the fourth quarter, but the Bulls? defense held strong. The defense received excellent play from linebacker Kawika Mitchell and safety Joe Morgan.
The Bulls were able to hold Northern Illinois until 4:11 left in the game when Azar scored with a 37-yard field goal. Just minutes later, Azar would add the game-winning score, completing the 13-point rally and defeating the Bulls.
Rob Brannon covers football and can be reached at email@example.com