Heels to the ground

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – USF has had many firsts in its 10 years. Some – such as the bowl game and a victory over a highly ranked team – are obvious.

But there was another first when the Bulls beat North Carolina 37-20 on Saturday at Kenan Stadium in front a crowd of 44,000: USF finally beat a non-Big East, BCS opponent and did it convincingly, as the Bulls (4-2, 1-1 Big East) outgained the Tar Heels (1-5, 0-3 ACC) on offense 417 yards to 285.

However, there was one person who didn’t enjoy this first for USF.

“Well, it’s a beautiful day until the game started,” UNC coach John Bunting said. “We continue to not do enough things to win and a lot of things to help us lose. … They out-athleted us a little, but outside. South Florida is a pretty good team, and right now we are not.”

But comparably, coach Jim Leavitt didn’t see much positive either. He saw a little, but he still had plenty of gripes.

“I was disappointed with a number of things,” Leavitt said. “One is dropping a punt. … Missing an extra point, field goal. It really, really hurts us. I thought after we went up and scored in the third quarter, for our defense to allow them to drive all the way down and score was disappointing.”

The Bulls won by 17 points, but despite those things – the Amarri Jackson fumble on a punt, kicker Mike Benzer missing a 46-yard field goal and extra point – Leavitt was happy with how the USF controlled the second half. The Bulls gave up just 67 yards to the Tar Heels offense, while gaining 201 yards of their own.

“We talked a lot about the second half (Saturday),” Leavitt said. “We really felt like the second half was going to be pivotal, and we really felt like we needed to get out and really play.”

Not that the first half was bad for the Bulls. They scored three touchdowns and went into halftime leading 20-10. It would have been 24, but after the missed field goal and extra point, Benzer was pulled for punter Delbert Alvarado, who in turn made a 26-yard field goal and an extra point.

USF first scored on a Taurus Johnson 19-yard reverse, which followed three Ricky Ponton rushes for 26 yards and three first downs. Then, after linebacker Stephen Nicholas grabbed the first interception of his career off quarterback Cam Sexton, quarterback Matt Grothe threw a 21-yard pass to receiver S.J. Green.

On UNC’s next drive, Sexton threw an interception to safety Danny Verpaele; the pick was the sophomore’s first, as well.

Ponton topped off the pick with his first rushing touchdown of the season: a 1-yard run up the middle.

“(This win against a BCS team was) big,” Grothe said. “Our goal has always been to go to a bowl game, and it helps that we finally beat a BCS team not in our conference.”

USF also went back to trick plays. First there was Johnson’s reverse, but the Bulls let Jackson throw another pass, and once again it was successful. The junior hit tight end Cedric Hill for 25 yards on a fourth-and-1 situation.

Jackson is now 3-for-3 passing with 67 yards and a touchdown pass.

The Bulls then took control of the game in the fourth quarter, running up nearly 11 minutes of possession time and keeping UNC’s offense off the field.

“We need that because we just need to get our defense off the field,” Grothe said. “They were tired. I don’t blame them. It was hot out there, and I didn’t think it would be. (It) was supposed to be cool. We stepped up when we needed to and took 10 minutes off when we needed it.”

Other players were happy to prove themselves against a more storied team.

“When we work fundamentally together, it just proves that we could be a powerful force,” tackle Thed Watson said. “We wanted to come out strong against (North) Carolina and prove ourselves.”

Jackson, on the other hand, just wants to play well against all teams – BCS or not, ranked or not, conference or not – and make sure the Bulls comes away with a win.

“This was really big for our program,” Jackson said. “We have got to prove we can be a second-half (of the season) team. We have to prove we can play every week, whether (a win like) this gives us momentum or not, because that will always be there.”