Standing on the sidelines, Devon Davis didn’t expect to be doing much Saturday against Northern Illinois. A true freshman linebacker out of Miramar High School, Davis expected to see action on the kickoff return team and perhaps some mop-up duty in the fourth quarter with the second team. But all that changed with a simple phone call in the second quarter.
“When I first got in there, I was so nervous because I went in so early,” Davis said. “I wasn’t expecting to go in so early. But when (co-defensive coordinator Rick) Kravitz came to me and said ‘Devon, coach (Wally) Burnham wants to talk to you.’ Coach Burnham was talking to me on the phone. Can he count on me? Yes, sir you can count on me.”
Burnham’s faith in Davis was rewarded as the freshman turned in an outstanding performance. From the second quarter on, Davis established himself at middle linebacker, only coming out on passing downs, while senior Kawika Mitchell shifted to outside linebacker.
“It was awesome,” Davis said. “I was feeding into the crowd. It was my first time playing in such a big crowd. We were just out there flying and shooting the gaps. Play your gap assignments, and when the ball comes to you, make the play.”
When Davis entered the game, the Bulls (2-0) were clinging to a 7-0 lead after Clenton Crossley ran in for a Bulls’ touchdown from six yards out a minute into the second quarter.
The score stayed that way into the third, but that’s when the speedy Davis took his coaches’ advice and started flying into the gaps.
After a Marquel Blackwell fumble gave Northern Illinois the ball at its own 1-yard line, Davis seized the opportunity, coming untouched up the middle on a blitz to force Huskies’ quarterback Josh Haldi to throw the ball out of bounds. Haldi was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in USF’s first safety and a 9-0 lead.
Davis and the Bulls’ defense were just getting started as the momentum drastically swung in USF’s favor from there. The freshman recorded six tackles, four of them behind the line of scrimmage. It was an especially satisfying outing since Davis wasn’t expected to see much action if at all.
“Never would have thought I got in there so early,” Davis said. “Probably fourth quarter, end of the game, I’m thinking I’ll get in. I never thought second quarter right into the brunt of it when the game is close, and they’re counting on me. And when I performed the way I performed, I was so happy.”
While Davis was making himself a force in the defensive backfield, a more familiar face ignited the USF offense. After John Miller blocked a Steve Azar field goal to give USF the ball at the 9-yard line, a four-yard loss gave USF a second-and-14 at the 5-yard line. Senior wide receiver DeAndrew Rubin then produced the play of the game, snaring a Blackwell pass and racing 95 yards down the left sideline for a 16-0 lead and the longest play in Bulls’ history.
“With a play like that, you look back and hope there’s no flags,” Rubin said. “Then you can celebrate.
“Everything’s real silent for a second, and then you hear the roar of the crowd.”
Rubin didn’t stop there as he and Blackwell hooked up again to open the fourth quarter on an eight-yard scoring strike, then electrified the crowd again with a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown, his second straight week with a touchdown return. Rubin lit up the Huskies last year, with touchdown catches of 57 and 52 yards.
With the Bulls firmly in front 30-0, Davis and the defense were free to ignore the running game and head directly for the quarterback.
“It was great,” Davis said. “We were shutting them down, and the offense was keeping the tempo. Their (defense) stayed on the field, and (our defense) was 1-2-3 out, 1-2-3 out. They’re not really a passing team, and when they had to pass the ball, they couldn’t do it because our front four is awesome. They’re so fast. You can’t stop them.”
The USF defense couldn’t be stopped either as 23 seconds after Rubin’s punt return, cornerback Ron Hemingway intercepted Huskies’ backup Ryan Gilbert and returned the ball 27 yards for his first touchdown. Gilbert’s 24-yard pass to Sam Hurd as time expired prevented NIU from being shut out, but it couldn’t rescue the Huskies from a 37-6 defeat.
Anthony Gagliano covers football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org