To state it simply, South Florida had big expectations going into Saturday’s game against Utah State. The Bulls faced a team whose schedule includes four teams that are, or were, nationally ranked.
And after a slow start by the offense in the first half, the Bulls saw big hopes slipping away as they trailed at the half 7-0. However, a second half sparked by big plays from the defense and special teams led the Bulls to a 34-13 victory after five touchdowns, the first of which did not occur until the final four minutes of the third quarter.
“I knew it was going to be a big game. I just wanted to come out and make big plays,” sophomore defensive end Shurron Pierson said. “We came big and I’m happy.”
The win kept alive a 13-game home winning streak at Raymond James Stadium, and for USF’s seniors, keeping that tradition going was almost as important as their 8-3 record during their first Division I-A season.
“We haven’t given up a win in (Raymond James) in two years. Last time we gave up a win we were I-AA,” said senior safety Joe Morgan. “We had great fans tonight. They were backing us and we had to win out here.”
The first quarter was offensively controlled by Utah State, which had 11 first downs to USF’s one. At the end of the quarter the game was scoreless. However, the Aggies were showing early control, as they almost quintupled the Bulls’ yard total (122-23).
In the second quarter, the scoring drought ended as Aggies quarterback Jose Fuentes completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Gary Coleman. The Bulls’ offense continued to struggle, despite the defensive showcase in the first half that included three sacks (two from Pierson and one from Tavares Jurineack) and one interception, while spending more than 22 minutes on the field.
“We took it upon ourselves to stop them because everyone was coming in saying how potent their offense was,” junior defensive lineman Greg Walls said. “We took it upon ourselves all week to come in here and shut them down. Our offense wasn’t balling like they have been doing, and we had to stop them.”
USF struck first in the second half. When three incomplete passes from Fuentes forced Utah State to punt, the Aggies saw the elimination of their lead in the form of a blocked punt by Kenny Robinson. The ball was then picked up by Sidney Simpson and taken 32 yards for a touchdown.
On the next drive, the Aggies answered with a 49-yard touchdown completion from Fuentes to Kevin Curtis. The following extra point attempt was blocked, giving USU a 13-7 lead. The blocked punt foreshadowed the way the Bulls’ defense would step up big and slam the door on the Aggies.
“We shouldn’t have given them anything at all,” Morgan said. “Those two touchdowns were because of mental mistakes and breakdowns. From there they don’t have any points up there.”
South Florida’s defensive work combined for two more sacks, including one more from Pierson who had three on the day. Pierson set the Bulls’ single-season sack record at 10, passing teammate Chris Daley who set the record earlier in the season before injuries limited his playing time.
Daley continued to be a leader on the defense as he returned a fumble forced by Morgan 12 yards for the Bulls’ second score. However, after a celebration penalty forced the Bulls back, Santiago Gramatica missed the extra point attempt.
USF’s next score came from a 3-yard pass from running back Clenton Crossley to Tim Jones. Setting another Bull record, junior DeAndrew Rubin returned an Aggies punt 91 yards for a touchdown – the longest in school history – just as the figurative and literal rain started to fall heavy upon the Raymond James grass. The final touchdown came on a 19-yard run from Crossley, as the Bulls became bowl eligible with an 8-3 season.
“We went into that locker room at halftime, we went in there and talked about putting some points on the board,” receiver Hugh Smith said. “We came out with some fire in our eyes and just had to get it done. That’s what we did. We came out and ran up and down the field on those boys.”
- Jarrett Guthrie covers football and can be reached at email@example.com