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Saturday’s game shows this rivarly should stay

ORLANDO – I’m converted.

Before Saturday’s game at UCF, I was on the side of those who didn’t see any gain in playing USF’s western neighbors.

“There is so much for USF to lose. There’s no point. There’s nothing good that can happen. A win, and oh wow, they beat UCF. Big deal. A loss, oh no, there goes the recruits, the stature. There goes everything this program has done in the last 10 years.”

But then Saturday’s game happened.

“What was I thinking?”

There was Jim Leavitt – doing his best impression of Stephen Nicholas chasing down a running back – sprinting full steam ahead to the USF student section in the corner of the Citrus Bowl, his index and pinky fingers extended after USF’s 24-17 win in Orlando.

There was Matt Grothe, looking like a seasoned senior, running a ridiculous 21 times and throwing three touchdowns, including a beautiful 27-yard toss to seal USF’s second straight win over its rival. (And there was UCF senior quarterback Steven Moffett, who looked like a freshman in his first game, throwing interceptions on his first two drives and completing only 19 of 44 passes.)

And there was electric walk-on – walk-on! – receiver Ean Randolph, with a team-high five catches for 126 yards, including a nifty 51-yard screen pass and the aforementioned game-winning diving touchdown reception.

And then there was the punting game … never mind.

And there was Leavitt at the postgame press conference, emotionally reacting to not-so-nice and over-the-top comments from an Orlando-area newspaper columnist.

Wait. Let’s pause here, because Leavitt’s rant was good stuff.

Mike Bianchi wrote in the Orlando Sentinel that USF’s football program is “an embarrassment” and “a rehabilitation clinic and halfway house for dregs and druggies. … A victory for USF is sickening affirmation for all that is wrong with college football.”

Then, somewhat surprisingly, the usually brief Leavitt let loose after the game.

“I’m tired of people trying to attack our guys,” Leavitt said. “I love them so much. They’ve got great character. They’re good people. I’m proud of them, proud to be a part of their lives. I’m disappointed in some things I read Thursday out of the Orlando paper, and our guys took offense to it. 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.”

Give Leavitt credit, because as far as anyone knows, he never lied on a resume or anything like that.

OK, back to the game.

There was the quick-thinking coaching staff, calling a timeout two seconds before the third quarter ended, allowing kicker Mike Benzer, who hadn’t made a field goal in his career, to boot in front of USF fans rather than the UCF student section. Benzer made the kick to tie the game at 10.

There was the defense, looking shaky for most of the game but forcing a fumble on fourth and goal for the win.

There was the passion. OK, it wasn’t Florida-Florida State – but there was meaning. And despite how Leavitt has hinted about not wanting to continue this series past 2008, believe he and his team wanted to win this game more than UCF, a team everyone thought needed it more.

The Bulls struggled with inferior opponents in their first two games this season. Then, in their toughest test of the season so far, they win an uber-emotional thriller on the road. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a catapult.

This series is needed. It helps shape USF’s identity. If Leavitt loves his players as much as he does, he’ll keep UCF on the schedule because there’s no doubt it’s what they want.

Yeah, the Bulls may have more to lose, but as long they keep winning, nothing will be lost.