Most of the 39,542 fans at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh came Saturday expecting an easy victory for their hometown Pittsburgh Panthers. Instead, they filed out silently after watching the USF football team upset the Panthers in convincing fashion.
The Bulls? 35-26 win was the team?s second against a Division I-A opponent and most important in the program?s short history.
Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said the hard work of his team in preseason showed in the game.
?With all the work we?ve done, this is the biggest win in our history, no question about it,? he said. ?Pittsburgh has won national titles. You?re looking at one of the top programs in the country.?
Performances by several players were key in the victory. Most notable was the play of Bulls? receiver DeAndrew Rubin.
Rubin, looking more like the Heisman candidate than Pittsburgh?s ailing receiver Antonio Bryant, caught 11 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Rubin put up these statistics despite playing most of the game with turf toe.
?People have no idea what pain he was in. He could barely walk,? Leavitt said. ?He really grew up today and worked through a tough situation.?
Rubin was one of seven receivers used by Bulls? quarterback Marquel Blackwell, who completed 37 passes out of 65 attempts for 343 yards and four touchdowns.
His attempts, completions and touchdowns were all USF records.
Other notable performances came out of the receiving corps. Hugh Smith, who was pushed down the Bulls? depth chart after a poor outing against Northern Illinois, came through with a clutch performance. Smith caught five passes including a 13-yard touchdown in which he fought through four Panther defenders to reach the end zone.
Receiver Huey Whittaker, who also had five catches in the game, said the win was not a surprise.
?In our minds, we couldn?t be stopped,? he said. ?We knew we had to go straight down the field and that?s what we did.?
With the impressive statistics, the unsung heroes for the Bulls were the offensive and defensive lines. The offensive line, blocking one of the better defensive fronts in college football, opened enough holes to allow the Bulls to rush for 100 yards while not giving up a sack on Blackwell?s 65 passing attempts. Rubin credited much of his performance to the Bulls? linemen.
?They did all the work in the trenches and made it easy for us,? he said.
The Bulls? defensive line put up an incredible number of their own, holding Pittsburgh to 12 yards rushing on 29 carries, an average of less than half a yard per carry. The defense also sacked the Panthers? David Priestly six times for 47 yards. Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris looked on in disbelief as his offense struggled.
?That was a terrible performance,? Harris said. ?Whether it was the line, the play calls, the defensive scheme ? they dominated us.?
Harris watched equally dumbfounded as his defense gave up 434 total yards.
?I don?t have a lot of answers,? he said. ?It?s my responsibility.?
Leavitt said the victory by the 22-point underdog Bulls should put the program on the map nationally.
?It?s good to beat a good Big East team,? Leavitt said. ?It helps Conference USA even though we?re not in Conference USA.?
While the Bulls never trailed, the outcome was in doubt as the game entered the fourth period. After leading 28-7 early in the second half, the Bulls? defense appeared to tire in a way that was reminiscent of their first game against NIU, in which the Bulls allowed 13 unanswered points in the final period to lose 20-17.
The Pittsburgh offense scored quickly on three straight drives, narrowing the gap to 28-26. The key moment of the game came with 7:39 remaining in the fourth quarter as Pittsburgh attempted a two-point conversion that would have tied the score.
The Bulls? Bernard Brown knocked away the pass attempt from Pittsburgh?s Priestly.
?I had an idea they would come to my side and try to catch me sleeping,? Brown said.
After the play, the Bulls never looked back. The offense moved the ball on an eight play, 63-yard drive. The most important play of the drive came on a crucial third and three on the Bulls? 43-yard line. Blackwell completed a pass to Rubin, who went on an electrifying 54-yard run to the Panther?s 3-yard line. Blackwell?s 1-yard touchdown run on the quarterback sneak with 4:31 remaining completed the drive and sealed the victory for the Bulls.
After the game, the Bulls seemed to walk off the field with a quiet confidence. Leavitt said he refused to let his teams celebrate with such things as the ceremonial Gatorade bath.
?You walk off the field like you expected to win this game,? he said.
Rob Brannon covers football. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org