ORLANDO – Just like last week, the Bulls’ 24-17 victory over UCF (1-2) at the Florida Citrus Bowl came down to one quarter.
Just like last week, the Bulls trailed for most of the game.
And just like last week, coach Jim Leavitt commented on the character of his players, especially since an Orlando Sentinel column Friday ripped the Bulls, calling USF “an embarrassment,” “a rehabilitation clinic and halfway house for dregs and druggies” and “a renegade program.”
Following the game, Leavitt clearly was not pleased.
“It’s not fair, and it’s not right,” Leavitt said. “I’m tired of people trying to attack our players.
“I’m disappointed in some things I read Thursday out of the Orlando paper. … We’re not a bunch of renegades. It’s not us. It’s not anything about us. And I promise you that helped us. Those comments helped us.”
Those comments must have, since it was the third game in a row in which USF (3-0) trailed at halftime. Down 10-7 to the Golden Knights, kicker Mike Benzer made his first career field goal to tie the game. The Bulls took the lead in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard pass from quarterback Matt Grothe to running back Ben Williams.
However, USF came close to blowing it.
With 10 minutes left in the game, a bad snap forced freshman punter Delbert Alvarado to try to punt out of bounds, but the ball was blocked, then recovered and returned 31 yards for a touchdown by UCF linebacker Blake Carter.
“Nobody thought we had much of shot today,” Leavitt said. “And you know that. We have a number of things we have to clean up. We have to catch a punt and punt it.”
Tied at 17, the Bulls found themselves on their own 10-yard line thanks to a block in the back penalty on the kickoff. Grothe, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 302 yards, led USF 90 yards to a 27-yard game-winning catch by walk-on senior Ean Randolph.
Randolph, a Webber International transfer who leads the nation in total punt return yards with 190, dropped what could have been an easy 36-yard score for a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
Randolph couldn’t let go of the one that got away.
“(The winning catch) doesn’t make up for the (dropped one),” said Randolph, who led all Bulls receivers with five catches for 126 yards. “I don’t plan on dropping balls. I still dropped the (first) pass. I’m still beating myself up over it.”
Grothe said Randolph is his own worst critic.
“After the (drop), he was sitting on the bench really down on himself,” Grothe said. “I told him to forget about it. The (winning catch) had to be redemption for him.
“He didn’t say that, but he doesn’t talk that much. But when he does, everyone listens.”
The Knights still had time. Quarterback Steven Moffett, who went 19-of-44 for 219 yards and two interceptions both by cornerback Trae Williams, brought UCF all the way down to its own 10-yard line.
On fourth down in what ended up being do or die for the Knights, USF’s defense was able to force a fumble and turnover on downs. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chris Robinson sacked and forced the fumble on Moffett, securing the win.
“I just got a great jump,” Robinson said. “We wanted to get off the field, and we had to get the win to do it. I mean, I had a few wrong reads out there because I’m still learning.”
Three come-from-behind victories and two last-second thrillers. The Bulls have managed three wins, all with a redshirt freshman quarterback who leads the team with 213 rushing yards (73 came on Saturday).
But Grothe, who claimed this game was just any other game earlier in the week, enjoyed beating what most want to be a yearly rival, especially when he threw his second touchdown pass into the end zone in front of the UCF student section. And he also claims to enjoy these down-to-the-wire games.
“They weren’t too happy (on the Williams touchdown),” Grothe said. “I don’t think anyone would. I liked shutting them up when they’re out there screaming at us, because it’s a good feeling to shove it down their throat and score.
“I hate it (coming down to the last minute), but I like it. They were saying out on the field that we’re the comeback kids. We are.”
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