Bulls shake off rocky start, finish strong

As a first-year Division I-A program, South Florida’s 2-3 record after five games didn’t have the nation’s football faithful in shock. In fact, it barely registered in the notes of analysts and critics abroad that a team they expected to finish, at best, 5-6 was slowly on its way to meeting their lowered expectations.

So after the first five weeks, the Bulls fit the mold of the struggling first-year I-A team they were supposed to be. However, in their last six games the team tore through three I-AA opponents, a future conference foe, a struggling UConn and a rallying Utah State team to finish 8-3.

In the Bulls’ first outing of the season they traveled to Northern Illinois where the Huskies defeated South Florida, 20-17.

Freshman kicker Santiago Gramatica missed a game-tying field goal in the Bulls’ final play of the game. Gramatica hit a 21-yard field goal in the third quarter giving the Bulls a 17-7 lead, but they would not score again and couldn’t stop the Huskies from tacking on 13 points for the win.

“We gave up a lot of yards, but last game we were a much better team,” defensive end Emerson Morris said. “It didn’t really hit us until after the first quarter. We realized that we could really put it on these guys. But I think we got kind of complacent. But after that third quarter we really thought we had them. After a while, as a team, we let down our guards. We were a much better team than them.”

Morris’ season ended when he broke his leg in the third quarter of the Bulls’ home opener against North Texas on Sept. 29. His comments about his team’s ability versus what they did against Northern Illinois would be backed up in the Bulls’ following game at Pittsburgh.

The 35-26 win in Pittsburgh, sandwiched between two losses, gleamed of hope as junior receiver DeAndrew Rubin snared two touchdown passes from quarterback Marquel Blackwell, for the second week. Blackwell also added his first of nine rushing touchdowns on the season, with a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter. Blackwell’s 343 passing yards and four touchdown tosses against Pitt earned him Player of the Week honors from USA Today and College Football News.

The make-or-break hour came after the Bulls’ fifth game 52-21 loss to Utah. It was a devastating loss for South Florida. Despite having 72 more total yards and 11 different receivers throughout the game, USF couldn’t overcome the 31-0 halftime deficit. The Bulls faced their six straight home stances with a 3-2 record and had to decide how they would approach the rest of their season.

“Certainly your football team can take two directions. You can sit back and feel sorry for yourself and be depressed … or you can go right at adversity,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said.

And the Bulls took adversity head on in the next three weeks, defending a home winning streak by handling UConn, Southern Utah and Liberty, outscoring the trio 150-70.

The Bulls continued to streak as they won their 11th straight home game against Homecoming and future Conference USA opponent Houston 45-6. It was a significant win for South Florida because of a pregame ceremony in which the Bulls honored Patrick “Pint” Payton, a teammate who died in a motorcycle accident during the summer.

Houston was also the first C-USA opponent to come into Raymond James Stadium.

“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.”

And the Bulls didn’t take their last two opponents lightly: Western Illinois made the trip to Tampa and were welcomed with a 48-17 defeat, as running back Quinton Callum rushed for 92 yards and three touchdowns.

The Bulls wrapped up their season with a 34-13 victory against Utah State. The Aggies came in with the nation’s 11th-ranked rusher, Emmett White and a highly ranked receiver in Kevin Curtis. The Bulls stepped up their defense, sacking the quarterback five times and finished the season with the solid offense that went right at adversity.

  • Jarrett Guthrie covers football and can be reached at oracleguthrie@yahoo.com