Things started off on the right foot for DeAndrew Rubin and the South Florida offense this season.
Rubin found the end zone four times in the Bulls? first two games, including a pair of scores in USF?s improbable 35-26 upset win at Pittsburgh.
But right before the first half ended against Pitt, Rubin developed turf toe, a painful injury to his right big toe, and the sophomore receiver saw limited action in Game 3.
The result: Memphis 17, USF 9, with the Bulls? offense unable to register a touchdown.
And although it was an injured toe that kept him out of most of the Memphis game, Rubin?s absence from the Bulls? offense stuck out like a sore thumb.
“DeAndrew works so hard and brings so much,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “I always want to put the ball in that young man?s hands.”
To understand the importance of Rubin to the Bulls? offense, one only needs to glance at his statistics from the first two games.
Against Northern Illinois in the opener, Rubin gave fans a glimpse of his game-breaking potential, hauling in a pair of touchdown strikes: the first a 57-yard score and the second from 52 yards out. Rubin finished the game with 121 yards, while the next closest Bull receiver, Vince Brewer, had 27 yards.
But as impressive as Rubin was against NIU, he saved his best for USF?s shocker against Pitt. Rubin caught 11 passes for 144 yards, including two first-quarter scores that gave the Bulls an early 14-0 lead and invaluable confidence. In comparison, no USF receiver caught more than six balls or amassed more than 63 yards. Rubin snared a 53-yard bomb from quarterback Marquel Blackwell on third-and-three to extend the eventual game-sealing drive. And oh, by the way, Rubin ran back three punts, including a 22-yard return.
“At full speed, he?s awesome,” Leavitt said.
The victory against Pitt was the most significant in the Bulls? brief five-year existence, but it was a play at the end of the second quarter that turned out to be an enormous loss.
As Rubin attempted to run a crossing pattern, he became tangled up with a Panther defensive back. While trying to get separation from the cornerback, Rubin said he was pulled down and the eventual fall and collision with the brand new turf at Heinz Field caused the injury.
“I made my cut, saw the defender coming and tried to stiff (arm) him,” Rubin said. “As he was falling, he grabbed my left leg. My right leg fell under him and that?s when it happened.”
Turf toe is not as easily explained an injury as, say, a broken arm. It occurs when the big toe is jammed into the body of the foot, causing inflammation in the joint. It can be a nagging, painful injury, recurring often due to an athlete pushing off while running or jumping. Imagine a severely jammed finger, which can be annoying as well as painful, and having to walk on your hands.
“It?s like a bunion on the side of my big toe,” Rubin said. “And it hurt really bad.”
With the Bulls? game against Southern Utah canceled the following Saturday due to the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, Rubin was afforded an extra week of rest. During the week preceding the Memphis game, Rubin gradually increased his repetitions in practice and was expected to start against the Tigers. According to Rubin, stepping up his workload in practice may not have been the wisest decision.
“I shouldn?t have pressed myself so hard (during the week prior to the Memphis game),” he said. “I should have just laid back and let everything take care of itself, but I pressed it too much.”
The injury proved to be move severe than anticipated, and Rubin found himself on the sideline for the Bulls? opening possession against Memphis. He returned three punts, but saw spot duty at receiver, catching only one pass for six yards.
“I thought I would be ready for the (Memphis) game,” Rubin said. “Rest is the best thing you can do for it.”
But according to Rubin, the Bulls? inability to put the ball in the end zone could be attributed more to poor red-zone offense than his absence from the lineup.
“We just didn?t execute on certain plays,” he said.
Huey Whittaker assumed Rubin?s slot in the lineup and responded by catching eight balls for 80 yards. But Rubin?s 4.4 defense-stretching speed cannot be replaced ? nor measured.
“He?s the most exciting player in college football, to me,” Blackwell said. “Anytime he touches the ball, he can take it the distance. And every time he touches it, he does something with it.”
And Blackwell would know, having played with Rubin from youth leagues to high school at Dixie Hollins in St. Petersburg to USF. Blackwell said it?s a journey few teammates get to make together.
“We push each other to be the best,” he said. “We played little league to high school, and now we?re here together. Not too many people get to do that and we?re just thankful for everything.”
Rubin said the pair?s familiarity with each other makes their chemistry on the field that much better.
“We kind of give each other gestures during the game,” he said. “I can just look at him a certain way and tell he?s going to throw me the ball.”
But for right now, Blackwell will have to continue spreading the ball around while Rubin, his main weapon, continues to nurse his tender toe. And if the injury wasn?t aggravating enough, Rubin was hampered this week by the flu. He is expected to play Saturday against North Texas, but once again his role will be limited.
Blackwell is hoping for a speedy recovery from his star receiver and had some strong words when asked to describe what Rubin means to the offense.
“I don?t care what anybody says, when he?s healthy, he?s the best receiver in the country,” Blackwell said. “Hands down.”