One play could have turned it all around.
Okay, maybe I’m seeing the glass as half full, but one play in Arkansas’ 42-3 drubbing of USF Saturday might have been the difference, and at the very least, would have been key in turning a rout into a contest.
It was an absolute thing of beauty – the kind of play that gives David hope he can slay mighty Goliath in the behemoth’s own unfriendly backyard. It was so close to being the panacea the Bulls desperately needed.
Instead, the play turned USF’s stomachs sour.
On fourth down and halfway back to Tampa for the first in USF territory, the Bulls were staring at a 21-0 deficit in the first quarter when coach Jim Leavitt made one of the most gutsy and brilliant calls I’ve seen in a long time – a fake punt. Arkansas had everything working in their favor at that point: a huge lead in front of a rabid home crowd, an obviously shaken Bulls team on the ropes and the referees tossing more flags (mostly against USF) than the Razorbacks’ and Bulls’ color guards combined.
To say the least, USF was knee-deep in Razorback dung.
But Leavitt called a play that would have made Bobby Bowden proud, a fake punt snapped to the up-man, Kawika Mitchell. The Bulls, on the verge of having their doors blown off, caught everyone in Little Rock off-guard. Not since Bill Clinton had Arkansas looked so foolish.
Oh, and it worked to perfection … almost.
Mitchell, the heart and soul of the USF defense, burst through a gaping hole on the left side of the Bulls’ line. When his tank finally ran out of gas 69 yards downfield, USF appeared to have first-and-goal inside the Razorbacks’ 5-yard line.
It was a chance to pull the Bulls to 21-7. But infinitely more important, it was a shot at gaining some desperately needed momentum.
I could see it so clearly. Razorback fans standing there (plastic pig snouts attached to their noses, natch) with mouths agape, Arkansas players in shock and USF believing it could win the game.
But the referees had a bit of a different vision. A flag lay on the ground back near the line of scrimmage (USF was flagged seven times for 50 yards in the first quarter alone), and the call was illegal formation.
The referee said Solomon Burgess wasn’t up on the line. Replays indicated otherwise.
That said, I’m not implying this one (perhaps botched) call lost the game. Quarterback Marquel Blackwell was uncharacteristically erratic.
When Blackwell was accurate, his receivers’ hands could have been moving billboards for a Teflon advertisement. The defense was transparent.
But USF’s most lopsided defeat ever had as much to do with confidence, or lack thereof, than anything. When the Bulls upset Pitt on the road last year, they played like a team brimming with aplomb. USF got out to a fast start and took the crowd out of the game – the polar opposite of Saturday.
The Bulls could have regained their moxy if Mitchell’s run had counted and might have been the shot in the arm they needed. Instead, USF now has to lick its wounds and prepare for its Sept. 28 clash with No. 2 Oklahoma.
And if the Bulls are to pull off the monumental upset, they’ll have to do it one play at a time.
Contact columnist Brandon Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org