USF Bulls back on track

After two straight road losses, quarterback Matt Grothe and the Bulls return to Raymond James Stadium on Saturday for the first time since their 64-12 rout of Central Florida. ORACLE PHOTO/SEAN REED

The character of the South Florida football team has been tested over the last two weeks.

Coming off consecutive road losses that dropped them from No. 2 to No. 18 in the BCS standings and changed them from a conference leader to a team tied for last, the Bulls have had a serious gut check since the last time they played at Raymond James Stadium.

“We’ve had two real tough, gut-wrenching losses,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “It does test the character of your football team. It tests your will. It tests all the things in essence in your life when you deal with adversity. You do find out the character of your team, your staff and everybody.”

Now, the Bulls (6-2, 1-2 Big East) will try to put the past behind them and get back on the winning track when they host Cincinnati at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in the team’s first home conference game since defeating then-No. 5 West Virginia on Sept. 28.

Ironically, the Cincinnati squad coming to Tampa this weekend has almost mirrored South Florida this season. The Bearcats (6-2, 1-2 Big East) have the same record as the Bulls and, after starting the season 6-0, were ranked as high as No. 15 before consecutive losses caused them to drop out of the rankings and to the bottom of the Big East standings.

With both teams looking to prove their hot starts weren’t flukes, Saturday’s game is sure to be a hard-fought contest.

“I have no doubt that our players are going to lay their heart and soul out there Saturday,” Leavitt said. “This game is as big as they come. It is a huge game. I think you’re going to find two football teams that are going to battle as hard as they can for 60 minutes.”

Like USF, much of the Cincinnati’s success this season has come from its stifling defense. The Bearcats are ranked 10th in the nation in scoring defense and have yet to allow an opponent to score 30 points against them.

“They’re well-coached and extremely fast,” quarterback Matt Grothe said of the Bearcat defense. “They play well together. They have a new defensive coordinator this year. It’s changed a little from last year – the way they run their defense and stuff. They are still right there in the top with everybody. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”

Cincinnati’s offense, led by senior quarterback Ben Mauk, is ranked 25th in the nation in total offense this season. Mauk, who transferred from Wake Forest last year, is having the best season of his collegiate career, throwing for 1595 yards and 15 touchdowns. Mauk has been successful this season, but will face a challenge Saturday when he takes on the Bulls, who are ranked 9th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense.

Despite the pressure on both teams to turn their seasons around with a win, the Bulls are preparing for Saturday’s contest like they have for every game this season. While it might seem like a long time since it held the nation’s No. 2 ranking, the team knows it has the ability to finish the season strong.

“We’re just trying to work real hard and get back at it,” receiver Carlton Mitchell said. “At the beginning of the season we were on fire. We just had these last two losses and that kind of hurt us a little bit. We’re still trying to push through. We’re not giving up. We’re trying to finish strong, like Coach Leavitt always says. That’s our motto, just finish strong.”