TAMPA – Coach Jim Leavitt walked into the media room hunched over, barely able to lift his arms to put them on the podium.
The 10th-year coach spoke with the raspy voice he’s had since fall drills started and reflected on USF’s 21-20 squeaker win against Florida International (0-2) on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.
“I’m drained,” Leavitt said. “I’m tired. I gave that game everything I’ve got, and it took it out of me.”
Though the Bulls (2-0) ran 62 offensive plays, there were probably just five (two on offense, three on special teams) that really wore him out.
First, senior Ean Randolph ran back three punt returns for touchdowns, only to have two negated by “foolish” penalties.Randolph returned one in the second quarter 46 yards, but a block below the waist by cornerback Mike Jenkins brought the ball back. Randolph did return a punt for 76 yards, but his third of the game (and fourth of the season, though three have been negated) was also called back due to three penalties: one before, one during and one after the play. Cornerback Tyller Roberts was flagged for a face-mask penalty, there was a block in the back during the return, and then Jenkins was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for taking his helmet off during the celebration.
“It breaks my heart because here he does so well, and we keep getting a face-mask penalty or a block in the back,” Leavitt said. “Poor Ean. Ean would be leading the country (in punt returns) easy, if we weren’t so foolish.”
But it was a little-known receiver who came through for the Bulls on two plays and probably helped Leavitt sleep deeply after the game.
Sophomore Taurus (that’s right, his name means the Bull) Johnson, who came into the game with just three career catches for 35 yards, ended up leading all USF receivers with six catches for 106 yards. However, it was a 14-yard rush that made Johnson’s first impact.
Johnson ran a reverse, but after immediately getting the ball, he was met by Antwan Barnes, who came into the game leading the nation in sacks (4).
Johnson broke away, kept himself up with his right hand, then broke away again from five other players for the 14-yard run and a dive into the end zone.
“There is no way Taurus should have made it into the end zone,” Leavitt said. “That was pure desire and determination that got him in there. It was a great play.”
But it wasn’t just his 100-yard receiving game – Johnson won the game for the Bulls with his tying touchdown with just 2:33 left in the game, following a fumble recovery that quarterback Matt Grothe called a “miracle” by nose tackle Richard Clebert.
Johnson knew all along he had to get the ball. He had seen something in the coverage.
“The safety was cheating,” Johnson said. “The wheel route goes right past him. I told (offensive coordinator Rod Smith) we should run the demon route through the Cover 2 they were running and throw it to me. We – me and Matt – do it every day in practice.”
On second down, Grothe wound up and threw the ball 29 yards for the score in the end zone at the student section, which exploded with the 27,114 crowd that stayed for the entire game.
Grothe said Johnson knew all along the play would score.
“When we broke that huddle, he said to me, ‘I’m going to be open.'” Grothe said. “I told him, ‘I know.’ I saw the coverage he said and got it to him.”
Grothe was glad he could get Johnson his first career touchdown reception, but at same time he felt like a downer.
“We were joking all week long in practice that he wanted to get his first touchdown,” said Grothe, who threw for 174 yards. “It was kind of weird how it fell into place for him – for us. I just didn’t want to get (a penalty for) excessive celebration. They were jumping on (Johnson), and I was pulling them all off him.”
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