Falling from national prominence and battling Syracuse for last place in the conference, the Bulls introduced a new symbol to take on the field.
The night before the game, coach Jim Leavitt brought a shovel to the team meeting, a tactic to motivate USF to snap a three-game skid.
“It’s just a symbol for our team, telling us that we have to dig,” linebacker Ben Moffitt said. “We have to dig down deep and through whatever adversity comes our way, we have to keep digging.”
Immediately the Orange dug itself into a hole, fumbling away the opening kickoff. From there, the Bulls won the battle in the trenches, setting a school record with 582 yards of total offense during a 41-10 thrashing of Syracuse.
Four plays later, Mike Ford, starting in place of injured Ben Williams, capitalized on the Orange’s special-teams blunder and punched in the first of his two 1-yard touchdown runs.
The freshman finished with career highs of 28 carries and 134 yards, along with his two scores, and was an intricate part of a rushing offense that out-gained Syracuse 346-15.
“We wanted to establish a running game. I thought Mike Ford ran pretty well today,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “His ribs had been hurting badly. It had been so bad that we held him out on Thursday at practice. He showed tremendous courage.”
The Bulls dug out of the basement in the Big East championship race but failed to earn a ranking in any of the three major polls, although they did receive 21 votes in the Associated Press poll.
A month ago, USF received its highest ranking ever, climbing to No. 2 in the nation before dropping three straight games and failing to garner any votes in any of the major polls last week.
With starting quarterback Andrew Robinson out with cracked ribs, backup Cameron Dantley was hounded by USF all afternoon.
Defensive end George Selvie quickly set the tone defensively, dropping three players behind the line of scrimmage on Syracuse’s first two possessions.
On one play, Selvie ended a drive by perfectly timing a snap and dropping running back Doug Houge before he was able to take his first step on a handoff.
“No question that from the get-go on the first third down when George Selvie, who is an All-American football player, came around that corner and we weren’t ready for what he had,” Syracuse coach Greg Robinson said. “Can I tell you this? I’m not sure that if (seven-time All-Pro tackle) Willie Roaf was over there on that first play what he would have done on it.”
Selvie didn’t play after the first quarter, nursing a knee injury, but is expected to play in the Bulls’ next contest against Louisville on Saturday. The sophomore’s three tackles for a loss (including one sack) moved him 1.5 behind Western Michigan’s Jason Babin’s NCAA record of 32.
Having already set the school record in just five games, Selvie needs six sacks to break former Louisville star Elvis Dumervil’s Big East record of 20 sacks in a season. His total of 14.5 is the fifth highest in conference history.
What had plagued USF during its three-game losing streak – and helped it start 6-0 – was run defense and conversions on third down.
The Bulls converted 50 percent of their third down attempts. During the three previous weeks, they went 10-for-47 on third down.
After committing eight turnovers against Cincinnati in its last game, USF had only one against the Orange and scored on all seven appearances in the red zone.
Although the Bulls played their most complete game since dismantling Central Florida 64-12, not everything was positive.
USF was flagged 16 times for 144 yards. When running back Aston Samuels raced down the field on a reverse for 75 yards to the Syracuse three-yard line, the longest non-scoring play in team history, penalties nearly negated the big play.
After Ford rushed for two yards and Grothe was held to no gain, the Bulls had three straight penalties on the third down. Consecutive false starts by offensive linemen and a pass interference call on Taurus Johnson that negated a touchdown forced a 42-yard field goal from Delbert Alvarado.