A long time coming

It’s been more than six years and three long weeks in the making, but the moment the USF football team has waited for since the program’s inception finally has arrived.

Since the start of the season, the focus has been on USF finally making its Conference USA debut. And after two games and a 20-day hiatus, the Bulls will roll into Michie Stadium Saturday at West Point, N.Y., to face Army in its inaugural conference contest.

“We’re excited about going up there and getting back playing,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said.

What could be more exciting is that ESPN GameDay will air live from Army’s campus, previewing the Bulls’ jump into conference play. However, the pre-game hype won’t abolish the main sub-plot this match-up offers. This is a chance for USF to show every conference team and official what its program is all about.

Players and coaches remember how the team was treated last season, when some conference teams expressed feelings that USF should have to wait as many years as some other universities did before becoming official conference members. After the delay, which could have directly cost the team a bowl bid last season, the Bulls are looking to make the same type of statement Saturday they made last season.

“It’s the first game in C-USA, so you have to (enter) with a bang,” senior wide receiver Huey Whittaker said. “Last year we just wanted to make a statement that we should have been in the conference, and that we could (compete). And we proved that by going 4-0 (against conference teams) last year.

“We’re trying to strive for a ring this year and trying to get a conference championship, and this is the first step to that.”

Although this is the first game against a conference team as a fully-fledged member of the conference, USF has experience preparing for conference opposition. And that preparation isn’t likely to change very much. But the team’s attitude surely will.

“It’s the same approach but just a different feeling because we know we can actually win something this year,” Whittaker said.

“We’ve played conference games, or teams in the conference, and those were pretty big games, whether we were in the league or not,” Leavitt said. “When you’re in the conference race, it makes things more significant.”

Considering the 20-day absence from the gridiron the Bulls (1-1) are coming off, a return game against a struggling Army team seems ideal. The Black Knights (0-3) are riding a five-game losing streak dating back to last season and haven’t won a game at home in their previous 10 contests.

But Leavitt doesn’t believe this game is going to be as easy as it may seem on paper. In fact, he said he doesn’t believe this game will be easy at all.

“(We) understand how good Army is, and it will be a hard-fought game all the way through,” he said. “I know this game will come down to the end. It will be a fourth-quarter game, like ours always are. We’re going to have to play and battle all the way through to have a chance.”

What the Bulls have to do is score more points. Despite losing its first three games this season, Army has averaged 25 points per game. The Black Knights also racked up 481 yards of offense last week against Tulane.

And USF hasn’t fared particularly well against Division I-A teams following a bye week, losing both previous games.

One thing that should help is the return of wide receiver Chris Iskra, who suffered an elbow injury during USF’s first practice and hasn’t played in either of the first two games.

“It’s very big,” junior quarterback Ronnie Banks said. “Just to have a guy that experienced (and) that’s played three or four years back in the system and going full speed is great for me.”

But the biggest thing the Bulls must deal with is the extended time off. How the team will respond to the intensity of the game is a question that can only be answered Saturday.

“Coach Leavitt has been running us a lot,” Banks said. “We’re definitely one of the top-5 conditioned teams in the nation. I’ll put my life on that.

“(But) I mean everyone gets tired. You just have to weather the storm and go through it.”