Five games deep into the season, coach Jim Leavitt’s Bulls find themselves at a crossroads.
South Florida, after being nipped by Northern Illinois in the opener, was picking up steam when it jettisoned into the national spotlight with its 35-26 win at Pitt. The Bulls train slowed a bit with their 17-9 loss at Memphis, but regained momentum again with their home-opening win against North Texas.
But then came the traffic accident known as the Utah game.”There’s no question after a loss like that, you’re angered,” Leavitt said.
South Florida jackknifed against the Runnin’ Utes, coming unglued in a game not nearly as close as the 52-21 score would indicate.
“We just got physically beat in every way,” Leavitt said.But with a weak Connecticut team transfixed in the Bulls’ high beams, one glaring question resonates – which South Florida team will show up Saturday?
Will it be the one that played marginally in two near wins against NIU and Memphis? Both of those games were decided on the final play, with neither going in favor of the Bulls.
Will it be the team that shocked the college football world with a win at Pitt? In that game, quarterback Marquel Blackwell looked like he was playing a friendly game of catch in his backyard with the USF receivers, picking apart the Panthers’ defense for 343 yards. The defense wasn’t as dominating as the offense, but they came up with clutch plays at key times, punctuated by Bernard Brown’s pass deflection of a two-point conversion attempt to seal the game. That Saturday, USF looked like a team to be reckoned with.
Or will it be the one that looked more like a NAIA squad than a Division I-A team against Utah? The Runnin’ Utes manhandled the USF defense, unmercifully pounded Blackwell and sent the Bulls back to Tampa with their tails between their legs. To say the Bulls were dominated in every facet of the game would be as much of an understatement as saying Barry Bonds hit a couple of homers this year. And consider this, Utah didn’t even play any of its starting skill position players in the second half. It was a rude reminder the Bulls are still a first-year D-I program.
“One game certainly doesn’t a season make,” Leavitt said.Despite the humiliation of the Utah debacle, Leavitt could not have been more right. South Florida didn’t secure a bowl bid with the win at Pitt, but they aren’t required to turn in their D-I membership card and regress to D-II with the Utah loss.
“Certainly your football team can take two directions. You can sit back and feel sorry for yourself and be depressed … or you can go right at adversity,” Leavitt said.
And the quest toward the latter begins Saturday against UCONN, a team Sports Illustrated ranked dead last among major college teams before the season. On paper, the Bulls are an 18-point favorite and are expected to steamroll the Huskies. But if the Pitt game served a lesson, it should be that anything can happen once the chinstraps are buckled.
Looking at the Bulls’ remaining schedule, there is a strong possibility USF could win out. More importantly, the last six games, which are all at home, present the opportunity for this team to improve and bounce back strong from the Utah game.
So which will it be? Will the Bulls’ train once again derail or will they blow through the stop sign?