Bulls’ comeback magic vanishes

It was almost the greatest comeback in USF football history. Down 16 points with seven minutes to play, it looked as though the Bulls’ season was winding down to the end. But then there was a spark.

The Bulls came back to life. A blocked punt and a touchdown; a defensive hold and another touchdown; a pair of two-point conversions, and the game was tied. And when J.R. Reed intercepted a pass and returned it to midfield with 1:52 remaining, it seemed there was no chance the Bulls were going to lose.

“We really didn’t (think we would lose), especially when we got the ball back,” junior center Alex Herron said.

“I thought we were going to win,” senior safety Kevin Verpeale said. “I thought it was us. You know, Cincinnati, Louisville, all the teams, I thought it was us.”

But they did. After UAB forced a punt and drove down the field in the final minute and a half, Blazers kicker Nick Hayes connected on a 42-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining to send USF to a 22-19 loss in front of half of the remaining 30,216 fans on senior night at Raymond James Stadium, ending any likely chance of a bowl berth this season.

“It sucks, I don’t know what else to say,” Verpeale said. “I don’t know how to lose. Call me a sore loser, whatever you may. I don’t know how to take losing. Never have; never will.

“It’s something I’m not going to get used to, not going to get accustomed to. Never have; never will. I don’t like feeling it.”

It’s not a surprise that Verpeale and the rest of USF’s 17 seniors aren’t accustomed to losing. While they’ve been wearing green and gold, they haven’t tasted defeat too often, especially at home.

This was just the second loss at home for the 2003 graduating class, and both came this season. The first was a 13-10 setback against TCU, which snapped the Bulls’ 21-game home winning streak.

But after all the dramatic victories the Bulls have experienced this season, which include the NCAA-record three double-overtime victories, maybe it was just time for one to go the other way.

“You can look at it like that,” Herron said. “We’ve certainly had our due all year for things to swing our way.”

But on paper, it probably shouldn’t have been this close. The Bulls committed a school-record six turnovers, with each of their three quarterbacks– starter Ronnie Banks, backup Pat Julmiste and situation quarterback Brian Fisher — throwing at least one interception. USF was also was penalized 16 times for 145 yards. However, the Bulls found a way to get back in the game.

Banks left the game just before halftime with an injury after throwing for just 70 yards,while the Bulls trailed 16-3. Julmiste then struggled early before breaking out with some key plays late in the game, helping the Bulls eventually pull even with the Blazers.

But in the end, it was just too little, too late.

“We certainly didn’t have the energy (early in the game) that we had there at the end,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “I didn’t think that we played very well at all through the first three quarters, but somehow we were in the ball game and shoot, we had the momentum.”

The momentum came at the end when the Bulls tied the game and when Reed came up with an interception with less than two minutes to play. USF’s defense had given the Bulls a chance by shutting down UAB the entire second half. But when the offense stumbled in its final possession, the Bulls’ defense couldn’t muster one last stand.

“I’m disappointed in our defense letting them drive there at the end,” Leavitt said. “That’s not characteristic of our defense, normally.

“I didn’t think they were going to drive on our defense. I didn’t think that was going to happen.”

What’s left for the Bulls now is a trip to play Memphis next Saturday in the season finale, but with this loss to UAB, the game has been stripped of much of its incentive. The Bulls won’t be playing for the postseason. There isn’t a bowl bid waiting after another victory, though there might not have been one anyway.

And now the question is if it’s going to be difficult for the Bulls, especially the seniors, to put up one more fight this season knowing there likely won’t be another game following.

“I hope not,” Leavitt said. “The season’s not over and we have another game. You hope that we have more character than that, you hope we do. But we’ll see.”