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Seniors’ last stand

More than family, more than friends, the USF football seniors have built a distinct relationship.

“I don’t think a lot of people outside of football understand how close football players become,” safety Kevin Verpaele said. “I have a wife and two kids and we’re close. But I feel every bit as close with these guys due to the fact I’m with them every day. I don’t get up with my wife at 6 o’clock in the morning and run ’til I can’t run no more. I do that with these guys.

“They’re there for you. They’re not there pushing you down, they’re sitting there to pick you up.”

That’s why when Verpaele takes the field at Raymond James Stadium Saturday against UAB, he’ll be playing for more than just himself. Fifteen seniors will suit up in Green and Gold for the final time at home.

“It’s for everybody,” Verpaele said. “You don’t think much about yourself. You’re out there playing for everybody that you’ve played with — the guys with you, the guys before you, the guys after you. We’re trying to build something.”

With a 24-1 home record during their past four years, the USF seniors have constructed a foundation. But something else that has eluded their predecessors still looms large — a bowl berth. USF (6-3) has come through the first two games of its four-game, must-win marathon unscathed, albeit by playing four overtimes.

As the season dwindles down, however, the pressure will continue to increase. And even the Bulls’ focused coach is feeling the weight.

“Every week is big, and every week it’s getting bigger,” Jim Leavitt said. “That’s what makes it exciting. That’s why I’m up all night watching film and moving around in my chair right now.”

Leavitt’s diligence in the season’s final month has served USF well in the past. The Bulls claimed victory in their past nine November games and boast a 14-3 record under Leavitt in the month. Now, that success will be put to the test for the first time in a conference race.

“How you finish is real important,” Leavitt said. “You want to play your best football now.”

As intense as the Bulls will come out, they can expect the same from a UAB team needing to win its last two games, both on the road, in order to be bowl eligible. Not even the loss of their starting quarterback and tailback has slowed the Blazers (4-6).

“UAB’s in the same position we’re in, so somebody’s going to get knocked out,” Leavitt said.

But according to Verpaele, that doesn’t change USF’s focus in the slightest.

“Every game is a must-win situation,” Verpaele said. “You don’t go out there thinking we can lose this game and everything will be alright. Not many guys are thinking bowl game because there isn’t a bowl game if we don’t win this week.”