(Top) Linebacker Ben Moffitt celebrates after the Bulls defeated their highest-ranked opponent . (Bottom) Brouce Mompremier and the USF defense contained the West Virginia rushing attack. ORACLE PHOTOS/SEAN REED
It was a win so monumental the field goal posts were already taken down before the game officially ended.
Prior to quarterback Matt Grothe taking a knee to run out the remaining seconds of the contest, the grounds crew at Raymond James Stadium brought down both posts in anticipation of the pandemonium about to take place.
When students began piling onto the field and rushing the team, there was no question USF (4-0, 1-0) had officially arrived on the national scene after defeating West Virginia 21-13 Friday night.
The stampede continued Sunday as the Bulls charged to No. 6 in the Associated Press poll, knocking the Mountaineers (4-1, 0-1) down eight spots to No. 13.
For the second time in September, USF won its “biggest game ever.” Originally thought after the stunning 26-23 overtime victory in Auburn, it’s now reserved for the win over West Virginia.
When a program in just its 11th season makes major strides toward a conference championship, the statement will likely be applied after each win for the rest of the season.
With the victory, the Bulls have come even closer to achieving their goal set since debuting in the conference in 2005.
“Our team wants to win the Big East championship. If we keep doing well and executing and winning big games like we need to, we’ll do it,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “It’s just a matter of staying together and sticking together until the end.”
The most important aspect of the Bulls’ win was their performance in front of a record crowd (67,018) and a national audience tuning in on ESPN2 for the only college football game of the night.
Before the 2007 season, the Bulls have never had 50,000 fans at a home game or performed particularly well on major television.
USF was 4-8 all-time on either ESPN or ESPN2, but the win over West Virginia improved the Bulls to 3-0 this season on the cable networks.
“It’s just big overall,” cornerback Mike Jenkins said. “A lot of people doubted us coming in and it’s kind of hard going against everybody. I think there’s going to be a lot of people on the bandwagon … it’s big for the program and it’s going to bring in more support from everybody.”
Having support from all over the country is something USF hasn’t experienced before. In 2002, as a member of Conference USA, the Bulls failed to qualify for a bowl game despite a 9-2 record. The only losses that season came at Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The jump in rankings has the Bulls going from being snubbed to being loved.
Having split its games with the “big three” in the conference (West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers), the past two years has helped establish USF as a contender.
Losses against Connecticut, Cincinnati and Kansas in that span has planted seeds of doubt about the program and provided a reference point for poll voters to overlook the team.
Since USF had been unable to win consecutive games against any of the top tier teams in the Big East, college football experts from around the country were predicting a blowout win by the Mountaineers.
“(I heard) we were going to get beaten like a rented mule,” Leavitt said. “Somebody said that and I thought ‘Goodness gracious, that’s really kind of mean.’ But I thought the match-ups were there and I thought we had a real shot at them.”
Once again, the Bulls defense shutdown a duo of Heisman Trophy candidates and slowed the Mountaineers dominant rushing attack. West Virginia gained 188 yards on the ground, down from the second highest average in the country of 357.
The Bulls defense forced six takeaways and kept the Mountaineers off the scoreboard until the final seconds of the first half despite three turnovers and a missed field goal in the first 13 minutes.
Quarterback Pat White was held to 136 total yards and failed to lead West Virginia to any points before leaving with an injured leg in the second quarter.
Running back Steve Slaton didn’t find the end zone or rush for 100 yards – both firsts of the season for the junior.
During his two-plus seasons of college football, the All-American has totaled 47 touchdowns and run for 3,428 yards.
Containing Slaton is nothing new for the Bulls. In three career games against USF, Slaton has rushed for an average of 61 yards and one touchdown. On Friday, he fumbled twice and had 54 rushing yards.
“He’s a great athlete, but when I’m out there and I’m looking across the line, I see one thing: I see meat and I’m ready to hit it,” linebacker Tyrone McKenzie said. “That’s what we all see. Every time he touched the ball we were going to hit him, and maybe he got hit too much.”
As one of the newest starters on the team, McKenzie played his best game since transferring to USF in the summer. The junior had 6.5 tackles, including one for a loss and his hit on Slaton, forcing a fumble.
Linebacker Ben Moffitt provided the first score of the game as he returned a pass from White, running 26 yards for his first career touchdown.
“It was awesome to be able to score a touchdown. It’s been a long time coming,” Moffitt, a senior, said. “We knew we had to play our defense to stop them.”
Grothe extended the lead to 14-0 when he scrambled away from several blitzing Mountaineers and found Carlton Mitchell for a 55-yard score.
Jamar Taylor’s 20-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter capped a 74-yard drive – consisting of only running plays – to give USF a 21-3 edge.
After another Mountaineer field goal, backup quarterback Jarrett Brown connected with Darius Reynaud for a nine-yard score, slicing the USF advantage to 21-13.
Defensive end George Selvie registered a sack on West Virginia’s final drive. The sophomore has 9.5 on the year, leaving him half a sack away from tying the team record shared by Shurron Pierson and Terrence Royal.
Early losses by Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia have USF in a position to achieve its goal of finishing atop the Big East. However, the celebration after the game ended quickly as the Bulls realize they’re now a target.
“I know you want me to take off my shirt and hug and kiss and all that. I feel good like that, but I’m serious about what I’m saying,” Leavitt said. “I won’t let my guard down because we’re only 1-0 in the Big East and everybody is good.”