Four's No Crowd

USF has made room for itself among the Sunshine State elite

Sept. 11, 2007

By Carolyn Braff


Carolyn Braff

Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for
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With Miami flailing and Florida State failing, there's a new No. 2 team in the Sunshine State, one that has quietly been knocking off top teams throughout the history of its program - all 10 years of it. After last Saturday's overtime victory at then-No. 17 Auburn, South Florida has arrived, and the rest of the Bulls' opponents would do well to prepare themselves accordingly.


If you ask head coach Jim Leavitt, however, the program has been capable of wins like this for quite some time, but they have plenty to work on before he's satisfied with winning a game like Saturday's.




"If you want to call it an upset, go ahead," Leavitt said.


But he's not going to.


USF's growing number of football accolades speaks for itself, as Auburn joins a list of recent USF victims that includes TCU and Big East powerhouses West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers. Where the Bulls could use some help is in the marketing department, as the team has never been ranked.


Some will argue that they should have cracked the Top 25 this week after disposing of Auburn - but four missed field goals and an inability to convert any of the Tigers' five turnovers into points kept them atop the list of "others receiving votes" and out of the company of the nation's elite. Still, it was not long ago that the Bulls seemed oceans away from that elite grouping, as the program began in a different conference, in a different division, observing the state's Florida-FSU-Miami monopoly from afar.


In 1995, Leavitt was named the first (and remains the only) head coach in USF football history. The Bulls played their first game on Sept. 6, 1997 as an I-AA team. Despite forgetting to bring a kicking tee to the stadium, the program got off to a hot start - the Bulls thrashed Kentucky Wesleyan 80-3 in front of 49,212 fans, their largest home crowd to date.


USF entered the Division I ranks in 2001, and quickly earned their place. In that season, the Bulls upset Pittsburgh on the road, 35-26, and then beat nationally-ranked Bowling Green 29-7 the following season.


In 2005, the program entered the big time by joining the Big East and knocked the conference door down with a 45-14 throttling of No. 9 Louisville. The Bulls have been rolling ever since: they earned their first bowl berth in 2005 and are currently on a four-game winning streak, dating back to a 24-19 victory over No. 7 West Virginia and a bowl win over East Carolina. After topping Auburn, they are making a legitimate case to shed their fluke-upset-team label in favor of a Big-East-contender tag.


Sophomore Matt Grothe played like a big-time quarterback on Saturday, finishing 18-of-27 for 184 yards and a touchdown and adding 31 yards and a second TD on the ground. Grothe won the game for the Bulls when he connected with Jessie Hester for an 18-yard touchdown pass in overtime, two plays after converting a quarterback sneak to keep his team in it. The win was the Bulls' sixth overtime victory in as many attempts.


A team that is clutch in overtime generally reeks of success, and these Bulls sure do smell.


USF clearly has the team ethic to pull off wins, but it turns out they have some players worth remembering, as well. Sophomore defensive end George Selvie is the nation's leader in sacks, with 5.5, and tackles for loss, with 9.5. Sophomore DB Jerome Murphy ranks fifth in the country in kickoff returns, averaging 37 yards per return. Grothe, the 2006 Big East Rookie of the Year, finished last season second in the nation among freshmen in total offense. This season, he ranks 33rd in the country in completions per game, tied with Heisman Trophy candidate Brian Brohm. Pretty fine company for a sophomore QB.


Playing in the Big East, USF automatically has three ranked teams on its schedule in No. 4 West Virginia, No. 9 Louisville and No. 13 Rutgers, but the Bulls don't stop there. They chose to travel to SEC-power Auburn and their next game brings Butch Davis' revamped North Carolina squad to town. If Appalachian State has taught us anything, it's that a game like UNC is no longer a gimme.


"Our schedule from day one has always been very difficult," Leavitt said. "Trying to keep your head above water has always been the thing to do."


At 2-0 with an off-week ahead of them, USF may be swimming comfortably, but the Mountaineers will certainly be looking for revenge for last year's upset. And Louisville surely has not forgotten about that 2005 game, so USF will have to keep the pace of that stroke if they're going to stay above water all the way to a conference title.


Aside from gaining the recruits his program needs to succeed, which often means selling high school seniors on the merits of the Big East over the ACC and SEC, Leavitt has been quite the recruit himself - Alabama made him a coaching offer he refused in 2003. Leavitt is at USF for the long haul, and is confident that by putting more wins under his belt, the Bulls will soon earn the national recognition they deserve.


Keep beating Top 25 teams and that recognition should come before the season is out.


"I didn't think [it was an upset]," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said after Saturday's game. "To me, it's just like West Virginia was last year. How many of these things do we have to win?"


One more might do it, on Sept. 28 when the Mountaineers come back to town.