As much as they downplayed the significance of becoming bowl eligible, the Bulls still couldn’t resist giving their coach an icy blue Powerade bath as the final seconds ticked away.
“Just enjoying the moment,” said linebacker Terrence Royal, who along with Stephen Nicholas drenched coach Jim Leavitt. “Just for a little bit.”
Playing at home for the first time in nearly two months, USF beat Cincinnati 31-16 on Saturday, extending its winning streak to three and making the team bowl eligible. Also the Bulls received 22 votes in the Associated Press Poll released Sunday.
“We’re bowl eligible,” said Leavitt, who addressed reporters after the game wearing a light blue-stained polo shirt. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to a bowl.”
If USF beats Connecticut this week, the winner of Dec. 3’s home game against West Virginia will win the Big East and an automatic BCS bid. If they don’t get the BCS bid, the Bulls will likely end up in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.
For a team that’s never been to a bowl game, Saturday’s win was a milestone. But USF doesn’t want to stop there.
“We’re not just here for a bowl game,” running back Andre Hall said. “We’re here for a championship.”
Up 10-7 halftime, USF’s defense came to the rescue early in the second half, forcing two turnovers that turned a close game into a laugher. Cornerback D’Juan Brown intercepted a Dustin Grutza pass and returned it 26 yards for a score. Two minutes later, defensive tackle Tim Jones recovered a fumble on the 22-yard line that led to an Amarri Jackson touchdown run. In their last three games, the Bulls have 11 takeaways and have only turned it over once.
“The defense has been standing up and taking charge,” said Hall, who scored on a 1-yard run and finished with 100 yards. “The offense isn’t putting the ball on the ground. No picks, no fumbles.”
The Bulls’ defense allowed Cincinnati to convert on only one of 11 third downs and sacked Grutza four times.
However, some stats suggested USF should not have won so easily. For instance, Hall was held to less than three yards a carry, Cincinnati outgained USF 362-345 and the Bulls tied a school record by committing 18 penalties.
USF was last bowl eligible following its 9-2 season in 2002, but Cincinnati beat East Carolina to take the Bulls’ spot in the Hawaii Bowl, something players and coaches said they haven’t forgot.
USF was also feeding off its “skunk” label, given to them by an ESPN.com writer who called the Bulls the “skunks of the BCS garden.” Jackson talked to reporters with a skunk hat on his head. He said he got it from Leavitt and wore it everywhere this week.
“We’re known as the Big East skunks,” said Jackson, who scored on a crazy 22-yard run after he fumbled the handoff and dodged defenders as he ran the width of the field. “We’re stinking it up.”
After the game, Leavitt tried to flee from the frosty bath, but he was no match.
“We had to chase him to get him down, but he knew what time it was,” Royal said. “There’s no running from us.”