Coach Jim Leavitt outlined four goals for his team before the season started – three of which seemed attainable.
First, Leavitt wanted his team to have fun. This may seem like a simple request, but one that has been made easier by the Bulls’ success in their initial season at the Division I level.
“People talk about having fun, but I don’t see a whole lot of teams that lose that seem to be having a lot of fun,” Leavitt said. The second goal Leavitt set was to defeat a future conference rival. While the Bulls fell a play or two short against Memphis Sept. 22, they did not let opportunity pass a second time, routing Houston 45-6 at home in what Leavitt called USF’s “most complete game of the season.”
The Bulls checked number three off the list in the Houston game, improving to 6-3, guaranteeing USF a winning season. The fourth goal, however, may be the trickiest to complete – making a bowl appearance.
“For us to go to a bowl game is probably pretty remote,” Leavitt said. “It’s just exciting having the possibility to be bowl eligible.”The Bulls will have a chance to go four-for-four in goals met when they welcome Utah State to Raymond James Stadium Saturday night at 7 in USF’s regular-season finale.
By most accounts, reaching postseason play seemed like a pipe dream before the season. In only their fifth year of football, few expected the Bulls to make much more than a whimper in the college football world.
But then USF lost a game it should have won against Northern Illinois in the opener – followed by the biggest win in USF history, a 35-26 upset at Pittsburgh that instantly erased the notion of the Bulls being just another pushover playing their first season of D-I ball.
Optimism for the season was tempered when the Bulls stumbled against Memphis, despite completely dominating the Tigers for two and a half quarters. But USF rebounded to win six of their next seven games, putting them in position to qualify for a bowl game with a win against Utah State.
“We need to play, I think, our best game of the year to have a chance to win against Utah State,” Leavitt said.
While the chance of USF making a bowl appearance seems highly unlikely, it is not completely out of the realm of possibility. Leavitt told the team before the season the Bulls would have to finish 9-2 to attract the attention of the NCAA selection committee. A victory against Utah State, who has won four straight, would leave USF one game shy of that benchmark, but a victory would make USF bowl eligible – something Leavitt said is nearly as significant.
“In some ways we can still almost come close to that goal if we’re bowl eligible,” Leavitt said.
But talk of bowl eligibility is fruitless without a win Saturday, and the Aggies present the most difficult challenge for the Bulls since facing Utah Oct. 3. And according to Leavitt, Utah State is the most formidable team to come to Tampa.
“We have not brought in a team of this caliber into Raymond James Stadium since I’ve been here. They are very good,” he said.And Leavitt has good reason to fear an Aggie offense that averages 430 yards per game, which ranks 23rd nationally. The Aggies offense is spearheaded by the formidable trio of quarterback Jose Fuentes, running back Emmett White and wide receiver Kevin Curtis.
“This offense is as potent of an offense that I’ve seen since I’ve been in coaching,” Leavitt said. “When I was at Kansas State, we faced some pretty good WAC teams in Colorado State and Wyoming … but none that I’ve seen is better than this group.” Utah State is posting 31 points per game and is 17th in the country in passing offense.
White, who led the nation in all-purpose yards while being named an Associated Press third-team selection last season, may pose the most difficult matchup for the Bulls defense. The 5-foot-11, 196-pound White, who returns punts and occasionally kickoffs, is as dangerous out of the backfield as a receiver as he is in the running attack.
This season White is accounting for an average of nearly 208 yards of total offense. Erick Smith of USATODAY.com called the senior tailback the “best player you haven’t heard of.”
“Emmett White is what he is – an All-American candidate,” Leavitt said. “This running back’s got great vision. He explodes when he sees an opening, he has real good hands and they run a lot of screens.”
Curtis, Fuentes’ favorite target, is ranked first and second in the nation in catches (9.1) and receiving yards (133.3) per game respectively. Curtis is a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the top receiver in the country.
“Nobody has slowed this offense down,” Leavitt said. “(Fuentes) has great touch on the deep ball … and they’ve got the leading receiver in the country.”
The combination of USF’s high-powered air attack and the Utah State offense could turn the scoreboard at Raymond James Stadium into a pinball machine Saturday – and the Bulls will need to hit tilt more times than the Aggies in order to reach goal number four.
Three down, one to go.
- Brandon Wright covers football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org