Bring up Patrick Payton’s name to the majority of USF students and chances are it wouldn’t cause a ripple in their memory. But mention Payton’s name to a player or coach on the Bulls football team and the response elicited would be quite different.
“The (pre-game) memorial brought tears to our eyes,” safety J.R. Reed said. “And it got us going again.”
Charged with emotion and playing with Homecoming as the backdrop, the Bulls orchestrated what coach Jim Leavitt called the most complete game of the season, as USF thrashed Houston 45-6 before 32,711 Bulls fans Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.
“We wanted to dedicate this season to Patrick Payton,” DeAndrew Rubin said.
“We already let him down three times earlier in the season, and we didn’t want to let him down again.”
Although the night belonged to the Bulls, the game was played for Payton. The Bulls were rocked early this summer when news filtered up from Miami that the redshirt freshman had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Minutes before kickoff Saturday, Leavitt presented Payton’s mother, Deborah McCoy, with Payton’s framed No. 29 jersey.
“It was an emotional night because of Pint (Payton), because of the tribute that we made to him at the beginning of the game,” Leavitt said. “I know the guys have been wearing (Payton’s) number on their helmet all year, and I know they wanted to come out and play well. I’m glad we could win the game on his behalf.”
The Bulls sprinted to a 31-0 halftime lead and never looked back on the way to their 11th consecutive home victory. Reed gave the Bulls a 7-0 advantage with 9:27 left in the first quarter when the sophomore defensive back returned a Chris Robertson fumble 63 yards. The Bulls reached the end zone on their next possession, sparked by a 31-yard Rubin catch to the Cougar 10. Two plays later, Clenton Crossley scored the first of his two touchdowns from 1 yard out to put USF ahead 14-0.
“I thought our offense delivered, I thought our defense delivered and I thought our special teams did well,” Leavitt said.
Attempting to catch USF off-guard, Houston called a fake punt from their 48 in the second quarter, but the fourth-and-12 play backfired. The snap went to the up man, but the Bulls’ punt defense sniffed out the risky call, dropping Jermain Woodard for a 5-yard loss. Crossley scored on a 3-yard run four plays later, but Leavitt said the ill-advised fake punt was not the turning point of the game.
“The turning point was a week ago in our locker room, when Anthony Williams got up and talked to the team,” Leavitt said. “(What was said are) things we’ll just keep with our team.”Although Reed would not specify the nature of Williams’ speech to the team either, he did say the senior linebacker’s comments motivated the team.
“He stood up and talked for about 45 minutes,” Reed said. “He spoke about how we went out and balled in the first half (against Liberty), and then we laid down and let them run all over us. And he said we can’t let that happen in our yard.”
While the offense was sharp, the defense was even better. After surrendering more than 400 yards passing to Division I-AA Liberty last week, the USF secondary put the clamps on Houston’s air attack, ranked 17th nationally. The Bulls limited the Cougars to 151 yards passing and no touchdowns in earning their first victory against a future Conference USA opponent.
“To have a Conference USA team come in here and for us to win the ball game is very significant,” Leavitt said. “And that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
Lost in the emotion of the night and the hoopla surrounding Homecoming was another record-setting performance from quarterback Marquel Blackwell, who finished the game 24-for-37 for 284 yards and a touchdown. Blackwell broke the school record for passing yards in a season on a 45-yard hookup with Huey Whittaker, eclipsing Chad Barnhardt’s mark of 2,476. Defensive end Chris Daley also set a USF single-season mark with a sack in the first quarter, giving him 8 1/2 on the season to surpass the previous record of eight held by Shawn Hay and Demetrius Woods.
But the numbers from Saturday’s win seemed inconsequential after the game.
“We dedicate this game to Patrick Payton,” Reed said. “Everybody came out with fury in their eyes.”
- Brandon Wright covers football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org