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Loss leads to better days

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002

In the cornfields of DeKalb, Ill., in August 2001, South Florida lost a football game. Yet the USF program took a big step forward.

Not that many noticed. DeKalb produces delicious sweet corn and tons of soybeans, not marquee college football.

So when USF negotiated the Midwestern back roads to play Northern Illinois on a Thursday night in the 2001 season opener, the 20-17 loss registered a yawn in the college football universe.

But it resonated with the Bulls.

USF, with just four years of football under its belt, was making the leap to Division I-A against an NIU team that is no directional-school pushover. The Huskies have had back-to-back winning seasons, and last season, they scared Sugar Bowl-bound Illinois in Champaign, losing 17-12.

Heading to NIU, USF was a 171/2-point underdog expected to be churned into the ground by the Huskies' potent rushing attack.

Instead, the Bulls attacked from the outset, surprising NIU with their no-huddle offense, quick tempo and speed.

Two long Marquel Blackwell-to-DeAndrew Rubin touchdowns helped USF to a 17-7 third-quarter lead. NIU clawed back, and a late field goal tied it at 17. Another as time expired gave the Huskies the victory. It was a loss and a victory for the program. Maybe USF had believed it could go into a legitimate I-A venue and come out on top. Now the Bulls knew they could.

Nine days later, they did. USF traveled to Pittsburgh and whipped it 35-26. It is the biggest victory in school history, but the seeds were planted in DeKalb.

USF hosts Northern Illinois on Saturday. How far has it come since a year ago? USF is a 71/2-point favorite despite NIU's victory over Wake Forest last week.

Some of the point swing can be attributed to the home field, but some also must be credited to the confidence instilled in last season's defeat.

Even if almost no one noticed.

EMPTY SEATS: Maybe a game against Division I-AA Florida Atlantic was uninspiring. Perhaps playing on Thursday night wasn't appealing. The projected rain might have scared off some folks.

Whatever the reason, the attendance at USF's opener, 22,074, was below expectations.

This week might not be much better despite a solid opponent. The specter of the Florida-Miami game, which starts at 5 p.m., might cause some to bypass the 7 p.m. USF-NIU game. It also could result in a late-arriving crowd.

BIG TIME: It won't be on a major network or ESPN, but USF could make its first national television appearance Sept.28 at Oklahoma. Fox Sports Net and TBS, which choose Big 12 games after ABC has selected, might grab USF-Oklahoma for national broadcast. (ABC likely will pick Nebraska at Iowa State.)

The decision will be made after the USF at Arkansas game Sept.14.

Big 12 members Colorado, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are off, and Texas Tech plays the night before, improving the likelihood USF-Oklahoma will be selected.

"There's a chance it will happen," USF sports information director John Gerdes said. "Twelve days out (Sept.16 in this case) the networks choose which games they want, then the others choose."

All road games will be televised. Fox Sports Net will broadcast East Carolina (Oct.19) and Houston (Nov.23) regionally, and WMOR-TV 32 will carry Arkansas (Sept.14), North Texas (Oct.5) and possibly Oklahoma. Also, Fox Sports Net will air the Oct.12 Southern Miss game at 7 p.m. Oct.14.

AS BILLED: Heralded freshman Hunter West quickly made his presence felt for the men's soccer team. In the opener last weekend against Stetson, West scored the game's lone goal. USF hosts East Carolina in its Conference USA opener at 7 p.m. Saturday.

-- Pete Young covers USF sports. He can be reached at (813) 226-3346 or via e-mail at young@sptimes.com.

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