Capacity crowd keys USF victory

A crowd of 67,018 people filled Raymond James Stadium to capacity on Friday night. That’s not the only reason Friday’s game was unlike any other in USF history, however.

The Bulls knocked off then-ranked No. 5 West Virginia, not only in front of a packed house, but before millions of people watching on ESPN2. And while all of the rankings the Bulls received this weekend are nice, I don’t feel that it would have meant nearly as much if the game wereplayed with the Bulls’ usual attendance.

The USF football team seems to have a new “first” every week. This season has seen the Bulls receive their first votes in both the Associated Press and Coaches Top 25 polls – their first rankings in each poll – and, as of Sunday afternoon, their first top-10 ranking in the polls.

On Friday night the Bulls also accomplished a first that had been dreamed about by coach Jim Leavitt and the Athletic Department since USF’s first football game in 1997. USF played in front of a sold-out crowd for the first time in school history.

The crowd did everything they were supposed to do on this night. The fans were silent when the Bulls were on offense, enabling quarterback Matt Grothe to hear the plays. Just as impressive was the atmosphere created by the fans when USF was on defense. The stadium echoed the thunderous thuds of seat backs being pounded relentlessly, and the screams and cheers from fans nearly drowned out any sounds being made by the Herd of Thunder. The fans provided a big-game atmosphere when the Bulls needed it most – during their biggest game ever.

The fans also knew how to party before the big game. Students and fans began to arrive at the stadium for the 8 p.m. game as early as 11 a.m. Some student organizations were handing out food and drinks, and the WBUL Street Team had some games and a giant inflatable slide set up. Most fans were tossing footballs or playing drinking games. More than 130 students donned the green and gold paint of the Beef Studs.

“As far as I know, this is a record for us,” Beef Studs vice president Scott Bergoch said.

Another highlight of the day was provided to students courtesy of the Campus Activities Board. Just outside the stadium a stage was set up, and tailgaters were treated to a free concert. Bulls fans enjoyed the hip-hop music of both Mims and the Shop Boyz – who performed USF’s kickoff anthem “Party Like a Rockstar.”

Some Bulls fans, however, decided to forego all of the pregame activities in order to ensure a prime seat come game time. Students began lining up at the ticket gates at 2 p.m. This helped to guarantee that these students would get the best seats possible in the student section. It didn’t bother anybody that the gates didn’t open until 6:30. The fans waited patiently.

After hours of waiting for the gates to open, followed by another hour and a half waiting for kickoff once inside the stadium, the 67,018 in attendance were treated to one of the most exciting games in USF history.

The boisterous green monster lurking just behind the north goal post gave life to a USF defense that was on the field for 86 plays. If that wasn’t enough, the students – as well as all other Bulls fans in attendance – saw to it that West Virginia relied on a silent snap-count the entire game. The fans saw the Bulls’ – as well as all of the fans’ – hard work pay off with 39 seconds remaining in the contest.

After backup quarterback Jarrett Brown threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-six, Raymond James erupted into a frenzy unlike anything the Bulls, and for that matter the fans, had ever seen. Despite a plea from the P.A. announcer, hundreds of Bulls fans leapt over the walls of the stands and rushed the field to celebrate with the team that was waving them over.

Players and fans celebrated the biggest win in school history together, while the recently installed ESPN Skycam captured the moment for the viewers at home to see. At that moment, the players realized how important the game they had just completed was to the University. The fans, who carried Grothe over their heads in celebration, realized the importance of the role they’d played.

On top of all other accolades given to the team by the press, and all of the positive analogies given by coaching icon Lou Holtz before the game, the Bulls needed to look no farther than their own backyard to see what the game meant to all in attendance. On Friday night, the first soldout crowd in USF history said all there was to be said.