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Bulls' downfall began with ground attack

USF couldn't run the ball or stop Arkansas from doing so, leading to the blowout loss.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 16, 2002


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- "S-E-C you later," someone in the crowd repeatedly bellowed near the visiting team tunnel as South Florida trudged off the field after Saturday's game at War Memorial Stadium.

It was unoriginal, but it wasn't improper. SEC member Arkansas had harshly dispatched upstart USF 42-3.

Worse than a loudmouth fan, though, might have been a headline in Sunday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "Hogs bring validity of Bulls into question."

Ouch.

When a rout is as thorough as this one, the criticism comes from everywhere. But USF's primary failure came at the most fundamental level, stopping the run and running the ball.

USF (2-1) allowed 307 rushing yards after entering the game first in the nation in rush defense at 18.5 yards a game. That figure was skewed by the opening game against Division I-AA Florida Atlantic, but USF yielded just 73 against Northern Illinois' powerful ground attack.

Coach Jim Leavitt said he was as confounded as anyone.

"What really bothered me was we were bringing up so many people to stop the running game," Leavitt said. "I can understand that -- if we stop the running game. But we didn't."

Consequently, the Bulls lost the field position battle. In 13 possessions, USF's best starting position was its 36. On eight possessions, the Bulls started at their 20 or worse.

Only once during the first three quarters did USF cross midfield, and Brian Fisher fumbled, one of many close calls that went against USF early and caused defensive tackle Greg Walls to gripe about home-cooked officials, who called five penalties for personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct against USF.

Unable to run or stop the run, the game deteriorated quickly. Arkansas scored touchdowns on six of its first nine possessions. USF didn't score until Santiago Gramatica's 32-yard field goal with 38 seconds left.

USF quarterback Marquel Blackwell praised Arkansas' blitzing schemes. He passed for 80 yards, the third-lowest total of his 36-game career. Last season, he threw for more than 200 yards in 10 of 11 games.

"We mixed the coverages to try and confuse the quarterback," Arkansas defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. "And we did."

USF rushed for 48 yards, 16 during the first three quarters. The Hogs entered the game No.2 nationally in rush defense and could move up.

"They did about everything we thought they would do," Leavitt said. "Your quarterback has to make quick decisions. Your receivers have to get open. And when they do, they've got to catch the ball."

Leavitt didn't address it, but the running game is USF's biggest weakness. The Bulls have had sub-par rushing results in all three games.

As bad as it was, the cliche applies. Things are never as good or as bad as they seem. Arkansas played exceptionally well, and USF got caught in a vortex of bad field position, a loud crowd, bad/questionable penalties and a stoked opponent -- and got clobbered.

In a similar scenario last season, USF got jumped at Utah, fell behind 31-0 at halftime (the 35-0 deficit Saturday broke that record) and lost 52-21. The Bulls bounced back, winning their final six games, all routs.

Those games came against teams such as Connecticut and Southern Utah. Next up for the Bulls is at No.2 Oklahoma on Sept.28. USF has two weeks to recuperate and prepare.

"If we expect to get to where we want to go, we can't come out and get behind good defensive teams like that. I'll take the blame for that," Blackwell said. "I guarantee we'll get better from this."

MAJOR UPGRADE: Arkansas looked more like a Top 10 team than one "also receiving votes." One of the main reasons is the improvement of quarterback Matt Jones.

Jones, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, is a superior athlete and is giving the Hogs much better quarterback play than a season ago.

He was 9-of-12 for 148 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against USF, and he showed off his superb running ability (he played receiver for part of last season) by rushing for 63 yards on six carries.

PILING ON: Arkansas' domination was borne out in the statistics. The Hogs converted 11 of 17 third downs. USF made 3 of 13. Arkansas gained 547 yards. USF gained 150, its second-lowest ever, and the 397-yard differential is a USF record.

NEUTRALIZED: USF entered the game second in the nation in punt return average, and DeAndrew Rubin had taken one back for a score in the first two games. But Arkansas punted just three times, and none was returned.

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