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Another memorable debut

Maybe it was just Army and the fact that the Black Knights have struggled in recent years. Maybe it was a typical USF debut at a new level or maybe it was just a successful Conference USA beginning.

No matter, the Bulls’ 28-0 victory at Michie Stadium stacks up against USF’s most impressive victories in its short history.

It’s been more than six years since the inception of USF’s program, which saw the Bulls develop from a I-AA independent to their current status as a I-A conference member. There was, of course, the 80-3 drubbing of Kentucky Wesleyan in the 1997 debut. There’s been the upset of the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, a 20-10 victory against Division I-AA Troy State in 2000. There’s been the upset of a top-25 team, which occurred just last season at home against ESPN/USA Today No. 25 Bowling Green.

But one could argue that none of those wins seem to be on the same level, or hold the same significance, as the Bulls’ first victory in conference play.

The Bulls (2-1, 1-0) shut out Army at Michie Stadium for the first time since the Black Knights fell 17-0 to Rutgers in 1981. It was USF’s seventh shutout in school history, but the first since the end of the 2000 season against Austin Peay.

And it was definitely the defensive effort that allowed USF to overcome a somewhat lackluster performance on the other side of the football.

USF held the Black Knights to 176 total yards of offense, including just 17 yards rushing on 28 attempts. Army, able to cross midfield just four times in 18 possessions, never crossed USF’s 31-yard line. The Bulls also forced six turnovers, three fumbles and three interceptions, and capped the game’s scoring on Kevin Verpaele’s 29-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

But as much as the defense shined throughout the Bulls’ C-USA opener, there are still areas that need to be improved — most notably on offense and special teams.

“It was a sloppy game,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “Offensively, we didn’t play very well. We committed a lot of mistakes that we don’t have excuses for.”

In six trips into the red zone against Army, the Bulls managed just two touchdowns and a pair of field goals, turning the ball over the other two trips. USF kicker Santiago Gramatica also missed a pair of field goals from inside the Black Knights’ 30-yard line.

The defensive performance may have overshadowed the offensive struggles had the game not been against the worst scoring defense in Division-IA football.

Army entered the game giving up an average of 45 points per game. Although USF racked up 370 yards of total offense, Leavitt said his team wouldn’t be able to survive against the top C-USA teams like Louisville and TCU, the Bulls’ next two opponents, if it can’t execute better on offense.

“We can’t play like we did today and expect to win consistently,” Leavitt said. “We made a million mistakes, and we have to get them corrected.”