Whenever the University of South Florida’s football team is talked about, one of the first things to come up is the age of the program.
The Bulls are only in their sixth year of football or they’re only in their second year of Division I-A play.
Saturday against Arkansas, USF demonstrated all of the evils of youth.
“Whether that’s the case or not, we have no excuses,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “We’ve played in big games before, and we’ve played pretty good. We have growing expectations, and we acknowledge that.”
The Bulls were nervous and unhinged by an Arkansas crowd of more than 55,000 squealing Hogs’ fans. Senior quarterback Marquel Blackwell fumbled a couple of snaps early in the first quarter, and his usual sure-handed receivers appeared to have sweaty palms.
The Bulls were lacking composure but did have plenty of immaturity. Even as the Razorbacks continued to move the ball on the Bulls, USF aided their cause by committing penalty after penalty, wrapping up the first quarter with five 15-yard personal foul calls.
Meanwhile, Arkansas played big brother all night long. The Razorbacks physically imposed their will whether it was the first, second or third teamers. Arkansas piled up 307 yards rushing on a Bulls’ defense that entered the contest as the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. USF had combined to surrender 37 yards rushing in victories against Florida Atlantic and Northern Illinois, including negative 36 yards vs. the Owls.
USF looked nothing like the team that had won eight straight games. Instead, the Bulls bared a close resemblance to the last time they went on the road – a 52-21 defeat to Utah Oct. 6. In that encounter, the Bulls also yielded 21 first-quarter points and watched the Runnin’ Utes live up to their name as they piled up 245 yards on the ground.
While the Bulls claimed that they didn’t use a cadence and would be unfazed by the crowd noise, USF spent most of the game panicking as Razorback defenders crowded the line of scrimmage. USF’s offensive line, consisting of all sophomores and freshmen, seemed dumbfounded as to how to counter Arkansas’ blitzes.
The vaunted Arkansas secondary went unchallenged as open USF receivers dropped passes, and Blackwell, who came into the game with a 67 percent completion percentage, misfired to the tune of a 12-of-33 performance with one interception and 80 yards passing.
The Bulls even managed to turn their highlights into disappointments as Kawika Mitchell’s 62-yard rumble on a fake punt that would have put the Bulls inside Arkansas’ 10-yard line was called back for not having enough men on the line of scrimmage.
The lone bright spot for the Bulls was Santiago Gramatica’s field goal late in the fourth that prevented USF from being shutout for the first time.
“I played it like a normal game situation,” Leavitt said. “If it had been fourth-and-goal from the seven, we would have tried to put it in.”
The beauty of the Bulls’ youth, and perhaps the only positive out of Saturday, is that they’ll get another day. For seniors like Blackwell and Mitchell, a date with Oklahoma looming in two weeks should be all the motivation necessary to shake away any lingering thoughts about Arkansas.
For freshmen like cornerback D’Juan Brown, linebacker Devon Davis and defensive end Terrence Royal, who started his second straight game, this is part of the maturation process that comes with youth. Saturday, USF saw first-hand what a national program looks like and how far it has to go to get there.