Twelfth victory will be as tough as ‘leather’

Western Illinois will bring a 4-4 record into Raymond James Stadium as they try to gain respect in their home state by attempting to follow in the footsteps of Northern Illinois with a win against USF.

The problem is that USF has won six games and had 10 weeks of training since a last second, missed field goal saw the Bulls lose to Northern Illinois 20-17 in the season opener. A strong performance against the Bulls may help return the Leathernecks to the I-AA Top 25. They fell from No. 23 after last week’s loss to Sam Houston, and this was the first time WIU has been out of the Top 25 since November 1999.

“You look at some comparisons; we had a knock-down, drag-out game with Western Kentucky a year ago some of you might remember,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “They beat Western Kentucky this year. Northern Illinois beat us, and they beat Northern Illinois (in 1999), they beat Ball State (in 2000). They are 2-1 against I-A teams. It’s going to be a real challenge for us and our guys are going to have to play awfully well.”

The Leathernecks return 11 starters from last season when they were I-AA Gateway Conference champions and ranked 12th nationally. They return with a highly touted second year starting quarterback senior Sam Clemons, who has 13 passing touchdowns, more than 2000 yards passing and five rushing touchdowns.

Along with a strong quarterback, the Leathernecks also have a solid receiving core led by tight end J.R. Niklos, who leads the team in receptions, and running back Carlos Daniels, who has 630 yards on the season.

“They are a real well-coached group,” Leavitt said. “Probably the best quarterback that we have seen. A quarterback that started at California that transferred. He’s very mobile and throws extremely well. They have probably the most athletic tight end that we have seen all year, a transfer from Ohio State which is very good.”

WIU is the third and final I-AA team South Florida will face this year, but unlike Southern Utah and Liberty, the Leathernecks will bring an even record with wins against Western Kentucky and Southern Utah into Saturday’s game.

USF has four straight wins and 11 straight home victories going into the game against the Leathernecks. This being said, Leavitt commented the Bulls are focused on winning single games, not on prolonged win streaks.

“If we were in their situation, I know what we would do. We’d come after it hard and they have the athletes to do it,” he said. “I expect it to go down to the end. I have never once thought, ‘We have eleven home wins, boy that’s nice.’ Never even thought about that. I think that is probably a motivator though, I know it would motivate me.”

There are numerous shared similarities between USF quarterback Marquel Blackwell and Clemons; both are very mobile and inside the red zone have proven they can score with their arms and with their legs.

However, one pitfall that seems to plague both is interceptions. Both average one a game this season, and big plays from the defensive backs could easily change the focus of the game.

Sophomore J.R. Reed, who was a big playmaker last week with a 63-yard fumble rcovery for a touchdown, is one of numerous Bulls who could take advantage of an errant pass.

Reed has four interceptions on the year, and if the defensive line can pressure Clemons early, he may be forced to throw passes before he wants. Junior tackle Greg Walls and sophomore defensive end Shurron Pierson are leading the defense with quarterback hurries this season with Walls at seven and Pierson right behind at six. Also leading the defense will be Chris Daley, who set a record for sacks last week at 8.5.

One aspect the Bulls’ have been looking to exploit is the punt and kick return team.

The Leathernecks are allowing an average of 23.8 yards on kick returns compared to 16.4 allowed by the Bulls’ special teams. This may offer the opportunity for South Florida return teams to make big plays and give the offense good field position.

“This will be our biggest challenge, I believe, since the Utah game, and Utah is a good football team,” Leavitt said. “But I don’t know if we’ve been challenged since then until this week. So I think it’s going to be a tough assignment for our football team. Our guys have had good practices and they need to continue the rest of the week.”

  • Jarrett Guthrie covers football and can be reached at