The football team stood huddled together not on the football field, but in a tight group inside the locker room it shares with the Buccaneers.
They stared at a television.
The game ended, and they switched off the set and smiled at each other.
They all knew a secret.
Five minutes later, a man in a suit entered the locker room with an item in a bag.At that point, even characteristically stoic coach Jim Leavitt couldn’t hide his smile.
George Johnson, coordinator for the Meineke Car Care Bowl, pulled a black helmet out of a bag and said, “We would love to have the University of South Florida in Charlotte.”
Leavitt’s smile could still be seen as he squeezed the little helmet over his head and told his team, “We’re going to battle, guys.”
In the Bulls’ first-ever bowl appearance in their nine-year history, USF will face North Carolina State (6-5) on Dec. 31 in what will be its 100th game. The game will be televised at 11 a.m. on ESPN2.
The match that had the players smiling was No. 15 Louisville’s 30-20 win over Connecticut (5-7). Had the Huskies pulled off an upset, UConn would have become bowl eligible and threatened the Bulls’ chances of being accepted to a bowl game with Big East ties.
So after the disheartening 28-13 loss to No. 11 West Virginia in front of a record-setting 45,274 people, Leavitt arrived to the post-game press conference claiming he knew nothing of USF’s bowl prospects.
“Honestly, I haven’t thought about bowls,” Leavitt said.
The Bulls had two scoring opportunities where they had to settle for field goals by Kyle Bronson. USF got down to the Mountaineer 1-yard line twice, drew false start penalties twice and on both first-down-and-goals, tried three straight Andre Hall runs up the middle, which West Virginia’s defense was able to stop.
“When you got it, you got to put it in the end zone,” said Leavitt, who is 61-38 as USF’s only football coach. “We planned to beat West Virginia. We prepared for it. That’s what we did. We don’t like (not scoring). When we get on the goal line, we want to score. We just didn’t make a good enough play. We’d also rather have touchdowns instead of field goals.”
The Mountaineers had a 14-6 lead in the third following Bronson’s second field goal, but kicker Justin Teachy’s kickoff went out of bounds, giving West Virginia field position on its own 35. On the first play, WVU quarterback Pat White kept the ball, rushing for 65 yards. He managed a 76-yard run in the fourth to finish with 177 rushing yards for the night.
“We couldn’t stop Pat White. I think everyone saw that. We talked about how good he was and I was hoping we could hold him to one run, not two,” Leavitt said.
Late in the game, freshman quarterback Carlton Hill scored USF’s only touchdown on an 11-yard run in which he broke three tackles. Hill and Pat Julmiste started sharing time in the first quarter, but after Julmiste threw an interception, Hill stayed in for the rest of the game, throwing 10-for-21 for 98 yards and two interceptions and rushing for 50 yards.
But after the yards White rushed for and even after their fifth loss, the Bulls still came out winners with their invitation to the bowl game, which is played at Bank of America Stadium – the same place the Carolina Panthers play.
The seniors are glad their season will continue for nearly another month.
“This just gives me another chance to play with the people I love,” said Hall, who rushed for 75 yards Saturday. “Play some more with these Bull boys. I’m ready to strap up and go. Sugar Bowl was in my sights, but I’ll take what I can get. Anything is good enough right now.”
Senior defensive end Terrence Royal is also happy for one more game.
“This is something I predicted, but it’s good to have another game after tonight,” Royal said. “It’s good to be part of the first USF team to go to a bowl game. We’re just going to get better, so I’m excited.”
The younger players are also thankful.
“You got to thank God for something,” wide receiver Amarri Jackson said. “We really made something out of this season. You got to thank God for the extra football, even though we expected a little more. But we have to regroup, go back to the drawing board and come at it as a family.
“There are a lot of teams that want to be in (our) spot. That’s God’s plan and we’re going to run with that.”