Bulls start slow, douse Flames

For the first quarter and a half against Liberty, the USF football team appeared as if it was in disguise and late for the Guavaween festivities in Ybor City.

But unfortunately for the Flames, the masquerade ball ended early as the Bulls proved to be more treat than trick the rest of the way, cruising to a 68-37 yawner before 21,056 at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday.

“You’ve got to give Liberty a lot of credit,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “They went out there on empty and it was like something we’ve never seen before, I guess.”

Quarterback Marquel Blackwell tossed four touchdown passes, running back Clenton Crossley scored three and wide receiver Chris Iskra hauled in a pair as USF overcame a sluggish start, eventually wearing down the overmatched Flames.

“It didn’t seem like we really came out with the focus we needed,” Blackwell said. “It was a real slow start.”

As expected, the Bulls jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead and appeared to be well on their way to an easy victory against the Division I-AA Flames. On fourth-and-23, the snap sailed over Liberty punter Noah Crouch’s head and the ball was eventually recovered by J.R. Reed at the Flames’ 5-yard line. On the ensuing play, Crossley took the handoff from Blackwell out of the shotgun formation and swept around left end for the first score. Crossley then scored on a 26-yard screen pass on the Bulls’ next possession and it looked like the rout was on.

But Liberty quarterback Biff Parson capped a 9-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge, and Sam Gado punched a TD in from 4 yards out to complete an 11-play, 97-yard drive, tying the score at 14.

“Their offense came out and did some things we didn’t expect,” linebacker Kawika Mitchell said. “They came out with an empty backfield and five receivers. We were searching for the right defense. We went more to man coverage and blitzed more, and from there we stopped them.”

What the Bulls put to a stop was any hope Liberty held regarding a comeback. USF reeled off 34 unanswered points and went on to score the second most in school history, ranking only behind the Bulls’ 80-point effort against Kentucky Wesleyan in the program’s first game four years ago. Still, most players were more concerned with the team’s poor start than explosive finish.

“We haven’t come out and clicked at the beginning of the game yet,” Iskra said. “It seems like somebody or another makes a mistake at a key time. It is something we have to correct in practice, and if we can, this offense will be unbelievable.”

On a night when 11 different USF receivers caught a pass, Iskra was the star. The 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore finished the night with six receptions for 143 yards, six shy of Cliff Dell’s single-game school record of 149. Iskra broke the 14-14 tie in the second quarter when he and Blackwell hooked up for a 29-yard streak down the left sideline. Three possessions later, following a Reed interception, Blackwell and Iskra again connected for a long TD pass, this time from 37 yards out to put the Bulls comfortably ahead 35-14 with 4:55 left in the second quarter.

“I had people telling me that my breakout game came against Liberty last year, but tonight was the biggest game of my collegiate career,” Iskra said.