Even though this season was full of moments that USF will always remember, the school would rather forget the 2007 Brut Sun Bowl. The Bulls had no answer for a potent Oregon offense, and the Ducks walked out of El Paso, Texas with a 56-21 victory.
Despite the fact that the two teams had never met, USF (9-4, 4-3 Big East) and Oregon (9-4, 5-5 Pac-10) played like bitter rivals. The game was physical from the opening kickoff and remained that way until the Ducks were handed the Brut Sun Bowl trophy.
The game got off to a relatively slow start, with both teams showing the rust of nearly a month away from the football field. The teams were at a stalemate until the Ducks’ Justin Roper – a redshirt freshman making his first start – connected with Garren Strong for the first points of the day – with 6:28 seconds remaining in the opening stanza. On the ensuing extra point attempt, Oregon ran a trick play to go up 8-0.
The Bulls’ shining moment of the game came in the second quarter, when sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe made a phenomenal play in which he broke a tackle, scrambled and spun to avoid more pressure before connecting with wide receiver Taurus Johnson for a touchdown. However, the momentum from the score couldn’t help the Bulls, whose defense looked as if it could not match the intensity of the Ducks’ offense.
In fact, with just three minutes remaining in the first half, USF did the one thing they knew they had to avoid – they gave up a big play. Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart took a handoff 71 yards for a touchdown. Even though USF managed to trim Oregon’s lead to four at halftime, the momentum seemed to favor the Ducks.
“We’re usually a better defensive team than that,” head coach Jim Leavitt said. “We just didn’t get it done today.”
Throughout the first half, both teams shared a common problem – penalties. The record for combined penalties in a game (18) was matched at halftime, and the teams broke the record for combined penalty yardage in a game (162) with 1:37 left in the first half.
In the second half, things went from bad to worse for the Bulls. Mistakes doomed USF, as three turnovers led to Oregon scoring a Sun Bowl-record 28 points in the third quarter.
“It was such a change from one half to the next. That one’s hard to figure out,” Leavitt said. “I don’t think I could mess up that bad at halftime with my motivational speeches, but I guess I did. For some reason, we didn’t come out ready to play in the second half.”
The Bulls’ loss became historic during the second half. The Bulls allowed Stewart to run for a Sun Bowl-record 253 yards, and allowed Oregon to score 56 points, the most in the 74-year history of the Bowl game.
“If we weren’t going to be able to stop him, we weren’t going to have a chance,” Leavitt said.
Oregon’s Stewart earned the Most Valuable Player award for his record-setting performance.
“He was probably the best (running back) we’ve seen besides (Rutgers running back) Ray Rice,” senior cornerback Trae Williams said.
“He was a big running back. He ran hard, and he never stopped moving his legs,” sophomore defensive end George Selvie said.
Assistant head coach and defensive line coach Dan McCarney had nothing but praise for the Oregon offense.
“They were really, really physical and I thought their execution was phenomenal,” McCarney said. “They beat us in every way imaginable. If you look at every phase of their football team, they beat us every way you could.”
After a season of new heights for South Florida football, Leavitt wants Bulls fans to make sure to look at the season as a whole, not just a loss at the Sun Bowl.
“When you lose like that, you have to be careful,” Leavitt said. “You’ve got to be careful not to define your team by 30 minutes of football. That’s something I feel is very, very important.”
After tying the school record for wins and earning South Florida’s first-ever Top 25 ranking during the year, the players on the team don’t want to let one half of football define their season either.
“It’s hard, but like coach (Leavitt) said, we had a pretty good season,” Williams said. “I think overall 9-4 isn’t a bad season.”