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Seniors step up

Homecoming games mark one of the final times seniors get to play in front of their home crowd. It’s a game in which seniors look to shine, but more importantly, it’s a game that seniors want to win.

Seniors Hugh Smith and Marquel Blackwell did both Saturday night, helping USF to a 31-28 homecoming victory against Memphis in front of a record crowd of 32,770. The win also helped the Bulls avenge a 17-9 loss at Memphis a year ago.

Smith and Blackwell played a large role in the Bulls’ victory, connecting for two touchdowns in USF’s 28-point second quarter.

“(Hugh) just got open,” Blackwell said. “They had a lot of holes in their defense early, and I just tried to get him the ball.

“We were just trying to execute the plays, and Hugh just did a nice job of getting open.”

The first time the two connected for a score came early in the second quarter, as Smith hauled in a 20-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bulls a 7-0 lead. The play was set up by DeAndrew Rubin’s 31-yard punt return to the Memphis 36.

On the first play of the Bulls’ next possession, Blackwell hit wide receiver Ryan Hearn down the sideline for a 33-yard gain. On the next play, Blackwell once again found Smith, this time wide open in the back of the end zone, to give the Bulls a 14-0 lead.

“The (offensive) line was giving Marquel good time (to throw the ball), and he just found me open and got the ball to me,” Smith said.

The pair nearly connected on a third score in the fourth quarter, but a diving Memphis defender broke up the play.

“I was thinking touchdown,” Smith said. “If that dude didn’t dive for the ball, I was gone.”

Smith finished the night with six catches for 43 yards and the two scores.

Blackwell finished 24-of-36 for 246 yards and three touchdowns, and added a three-yard touchdown run.

Smith has played well this season for the Bulls, and his numbers prove it.

Smith’s six catches Saturday give him 54 for the season, setting a new single-season team record for receptions in a season and passing fellow wide receiver Huey Whittaker’s record of 52 set last year.

“I’ve been playing pretty good, and I just want to keep that going,” Smith said. “I’ve got one more game (at home), and I just want to win out and play to the best to my ability.”

But Smith and Blackwell’s night was overshadowed by the Bulls’ defense, which seemed to make a big play every time the team needed one.

The first was a stellar goal-line stand in the first quarter. Memphis had first-and-goal on USF’s 2-yard line, but the Bulls stuffed the Tigers’ running game four straight plays, forcing Memphis to turn the ball over on downs.

The second big play came in the fourth quarter when cornerback Ron Hemingway intercepted a Danny Wimprine pass with 8:46 remaining and USF nursing a three-point lead.

The last big defensive play was provided by cornerback J.R. Reed, who intercepted Wimprine’s Hail Mary attempt on the final play of the game.

“Tell me that wasn’t big,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said about the goal-line stand. “That set the tone for the second quarter. That was as good as I’ve seen this defense play.”

The Bulls’ ability to keep the Tigers out of the end zone in the first quarter goal-line stand ultimately gave USF the victory, and Smith gave the credit where it was due.

“Our defense played a great game,” Smith said. “I mean they played a great game.

“Them boys have been playing good all year and shutting down a lot of offenses, and I just thank them. Sometimes we come through for them, but the majority of the time this year our defense has been keeping us in a lot of ballgames.”