Cedric Hill and Taurus Johnson and celebrate Hills touchdown in the third quarter Saturday against Central Florida. ORACLE PHOTO/SEAN REED
After seven weeks of college football, voters nationwide believe only one team deserves to be ranked higher than USF.
With losses from Louisiana State by Kentucky and California by Oregon State, the Bulls were able to climb in the polls for the fifth consecutive week. In six weeks USF went from unranked to No. 23, then No. 18 to No. 6, No. 5 to No. 2.
The Bulls were receiving criticism from national analysts after struggling to a 35-23 win over Florida Atlantic. Former Miami Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson said USF was unworthy of its lofty ranking, an opinion shared by many across the country.
“I get so tired of hearing those guys on ESPN taking shots at us and knocking our program because we’re young,” nose tackle Richard Clebert said. “History doesn’t win games. What we did last year isn’t going to help us at all.”
The Bulls (6-0, 1-0) erased any lingering doubts about their performance against the Owls with a 64-12 thrashing of Central Florida (3-3, 1,1).
On Sunday, when the latest Associated Press rankings came out, the only team listed above the Bulls was Ohio State. The USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll lists USF third, behind Ohio State and Boston College.
In the first week of Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings – used to place teams in BCS bowl games – USF would face the Buckeyes in the BCS National Championship game in New Orleans on Jan. 7 if the season ended today.
“It’s something (the players) never dreamed would happen when they came here,”
defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “You always dream of it as a coach, that’s what you work for.”
For USF to keep its hopes of a national championship alive, a 12-0 record will likely be necessary as only one remaining regular season opponent, Cincinnati, is ranked.
“Every game, you have to play like it’s the Super Bowl, and now it’s like that. It’s great to be in that situation. For this program to be where it is, it’s well deserved,” pass game coordinator/wide receiver coach Mike Canales said. “We’ve gotten a lot of snips from the people on the outside telling us we don’t deserve to be here, but we don’t worry about the
outside. We only worry about our group, players, coaches and our family.”
The Bulls catapulted into the second slot after their most convincing win since defeating Cumberland 69-3 on Nov. 7, 1998. Saturday’s 64 points for the Bulls marks the third highest total in USF history.
“Was 64 points surprising? Yes, it was,” Clebert said. “But I didn’t think it was good enough. We should have gone for the onside kick at the end because you know UCF would have done something like that.”
Leavitt said the players were motivated by some stories that took personal shots at the team. Even Knights’ coach George O’Leary goaded USF, taking a dig at the program by asking what conference it was in.
The players took it as a stab at the program, but Saturday the Bulls proved why they have no interest in continuing the series.
Quarterback Matt Grothe again dominated the Knights’ defense. The sophomore followed up his 302-yard, two-touchdown performance last season with 312 total yards and four scores.
Grothe rushed for 100 yards for the second outing in a row and two touchdowns, in addition to his 212 passing yards.
His touchdown passes to Taurus Johnson and Cedric Hill came after Grothe’s struggle in his past two games against West Virginia and Florida Atlantic.
Several dropped passes also left as many as three touchdowns off the scoreboard.
“I got on our guys on the sidelines and I expect them to make plays,” Canales said. “They came back and responded, and I’m so proud of them.”
For the first time in school history, three quarterbacks threw touchdown passes. Starter Matt Grothe was pulled in the third quarter after putting USF up 50-10. Grant Gregory threw two touchdowns and Anthony Severino threw a 28-yard score to Jessie Hester Jr., on a fourth down play with 2:16remaining.
“I really wanted to push it,” Leavitt said. “I don’t think you could have done a better job on that.”
UCF managed only 145 yards of total offense and turned the ball over three times in the first quarter.
“I can’t believe anyone would beat us like that,” UCF quarterback Kyle Israel said.
Kevin Smith began the day as the nation’s leading rusher but was held to 55 yards on 18 carries. The Bulls haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 14 straight games, dating back to last season.
“UCF was a good team – they had the leading rusher in the nation and we shut him down,” defensive end George Selvie said. “It was a great challenge, but we love it.”
Smith had at least 124 yards rushing and a touchdown in each of the first five games of the season, but both streaks came to an end against USF.
When the two teams meet again in 2008 in Orlando, it could be the final match-up between the two programs. USF has defeated the Knights in three consecutive seasons. Only Charleston Southern, East Carolina and Liberty have lost four games to the Bulls.
When the series began in 2005, fans of both teams were pushing for the game to be an annual rivalry. Following Saturday’s game, the Bulls hope to replace UCF with Miami as their top in-state foe when they begin a five-game series with the Hurricanes in 2009.
“It’s not a rivalry. When you put up 64 on someone like that it can’t be a rivalry,” Clebert said. “It’s over and done.”
1 Ohio State 7-02 South Florida 6-03 Boston College 7-04 LSU 6-15 Oklahoma 6-1
Brendan Galella can be reached at (813) 974-2842 or firstname.lastname@example.org.