Seniors make ‘bowl’ statement

The litany of accomplishments for the USF senior class is too many to list.

In the six-year history of South Florida football, the Bulls’ 13 seniors have done much to cement that foundation: first win against a Division I-A team, a winning season their first time out as a I-A team, defeating teams that went to bowl games.

The Bulls (9-2) added another notch to their belt by dismantling Houston 32-14 Saturday, recording the program’s first nine-win season in the process. The showing also raised the Bulls in the eyes of the voters, jumping from two votes to 13 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll and from four to 21 in the Associated Press poll. Those numbers rank USF 34th by the coaches and 32nd by the media.

But, USF coach Jim Leavitt will be disappointed if his seniors’ careers concluded on the field in Houston.

“Maybe I should run naked through the streets of Tampa with a sign that says, ‘We need to go to a Bowl,'” Leavitt said on his post-game radio show on WQYK 1010. “I don’t know what else to do. If I need to do that, then I’ll do it. I’ll probably get arrested. I’ll probably get fired as the head football coach.

“Really, what do we have to do? It’s crazy. You win nine games like this, you lose to Oklahoma (Sept. 28), and Arkansas (Sept. 14), it’s not bad. We beat everybody else, and we made some exclamation points these last few games. I told our guys for us not to get invited to a bowl would be a joke. It should be a no-brainer.”

However, USF would be hard pressed to put on a more dominating display to end the season. The Cougars (4-7, 2-5 in Conference USA) seemed like putty in the Bulls’ hands. USF snared seven interceptions from Houston quarterback Nick Eddy, a pair by J.R. Reed to set both the USF single-season and career marks for interceptions.

“I thought our defense had a great game, I really did,” said Leavitt. “(Houston) had that one drive in the third quarter that I was disappointed in. We were probably playing too passive. But you have to remember Houston is a good football team. They play extremely well at home. It’s hard to hold that team to 14 points.”

The USF defense continually had its way with Houston, picking up four sacks and limiting C-USA’s top rusher, Joffrey Reynolds, to 59 yards on 22 attempts. Reynolds had been averaging more than 130 yards a game.

The USF offense also dictated the game on its end, piling on 18 points in under 5 1/2 minutes in the third quarter to turn a comfortable 14-0 lead into an insurmountable 32-0 advantage.

The Bulls’ seniors figured heavily in the outcome. Quarterback Marquel Blackwell reaffirmed why he has a stranglehold on the USF record book, throwing for 305 yards and two touchdowns and adding three more scores on the ground. The fifth-year senior also extended his interception-less streak to 235, second all-time in NCAA history to Trent Dilfer’s 271 straight throws without a pick in 1993 while with Fresno State. The three rushing scores also made Blackwell the Bulls’ career leader in rushing touchdowns with 20.

Wideout Hugh Smith had a productive finale, grabbing four balls for 107 yards and a touchdown. The senior extended his single-season catch mark to 62 and broke Huey Whittaker’s yardage record from 2001 by recording 661.

Leavitt and the Bulls must hope that Saturday’s showing was enough as they sit and wait out the final two weeks of the regular season to see if a bowl invitation is coming.

“Probably an act of Congress,” Leavitt said. “Probably the President has to come out and say, ‘Listen I see an unfairness going on this country, and I think the South Florida Bulls need to go to the American Bowl.’ And the President’s going to have to come out and make it happen.

“I’m hopeful. I’m going to pray for these guys that somebody will give them an opportunity because of how hard these guys have worked and gone after it, the whole deal.”