SOUTH FLORIDA 14, OKLAHOMA 31: USF, in its first national TV game and against its highest-ranked foe, makes too many mistakes to keep up.
By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2002
NORMAN, Okla. -- South Florida matched No. 2-ranked Oklahoma on offense Saturday night. The Bulls matched the Sooners on defense, too.
Before a national television audience on TBS, the Bulls stood toe-to-toe in the trenches and on the flanks, in speed and in strength.
Actually, they surpassed Oklahoma, outgaining the Sooners 328-239.
Alas, feisty 28-point underdog USF came up wanting exactly where it had hoped to create an advantage -- in intangibles. The Bulls accrued senseless penalties and careless turnovers, which Oklahoma parlayed into touchdowns for an easy 31-14 win. USF's scores came in the final two minutes.
"Mental mistakes, major big-time mental mistakes," USF defensive end Chris Daley said. "As everybody in the world can see, everybody who watched the game on TBS, we competed even with them and they're supposed to be the (No. 2) team in the country.
"The difference between us and them? They didn't make the mistakes."
In the biggest game in the Bulls' six-year history before 74,432 at Memorial Stadium, USF (2-2) demonstrated skill but not stage presence. The Bulls, rocked 42-3 two weeks ago at Arkansas, tussled evenly with Oklahoma (4-0), except the Bulls made 15 penalties and three turnovers and OU pounced on the gifts.
"It's very frustrating. You can't be penalized like that, you can't make turnovers like that, or you lose," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "You can't do those things and expect to win. It shows a lack of discipline in my opinion, and that goes right back to me."
A scoreless first quarter ballooned to 21-0 at the half on an 82-yard punt-return score by Antonio Perkins and two OU touchdowns directly following USF fumbles.
The Bulls had more first downs (18-15) rushing yards (61-45), passing yards (267-194) and yards per play (4.2-3.6). They also had 124 yards in penalties to Oklahoma's 55 and Oklahoma's lone turnover came with the outcome decided. Special teams also contributed, as punter Devin Sanderson was supposed to kick out of bounds instead of to Perkins.
"The stuff we practice every day, the little things, that's what killed us," USF offensive tackle Derrick Sarosi said. "I thought we matched up very well with (their defense), but the penalties and the MAs, missed assignments, they killed us."
USF, which started with home routs of Florida Atlantic and Northern Illinois by a combined 88-16, has lost its past two 73-17.
The discouraging performance partly sullied the homecoming of athletic director Lee Roy Selmon and the meeting between Leavitt and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops. Selmon, an All-American at Oklahoma in the 1970s, was honored with a halftime ceremony. Leavitt and Stoops were co-defensive coordinators at Kansas State in the early 1990s.
Despite outgaining the Sooners and cutting the final margin to 17 on two touchdown passes by backup quarterback Ronnie Banks, Leavitt rejected the concept of a moral victory. "A loss is a loss is a loss is a loss," Leavitt said. "What are you going to have, six moral victories, eight moral victories, 18 moral victories? You've got 18 losses."
The Bulls appeared to take the lead early in the second quarter, but a minor mistake in execution proved costly. Quarterback Marquel Blackwell passed in the flat to Brian Fisher, who threw to DeJuan Green for a 37-yard score. But the pass to Fisher was forward, not a lateral, negating the touchdown.
"It took a lot of steam out of us," Fisher said of the points coming off the board. Two plays later USF punted, and Perkins took it the distance for a 7-0 lead.
On the Bulls' next possession, Clenton Crossley fumbled, and Oklahoma marched 45 yards to go up 14-0. On its next series, USF drove inside the OU 20 only to fumble again, with Green turning it over.
Then Oklahoma delivered the backbreaker. The Sooners and quarterback Nate Hybl (19 of 30, 166 yards, 2 touchdowns) hit their stride on a seven-play, 82-yard drive to go up 21-0 a minute before intermission.
Against a defense that had two shutouts in its first three games, USF's upset dreams essentially were finished.
It was more of the same in the second half. The Bulls took the kickoff and made successive first downs, then undermined themselves. Blackwell, thinking OU had jumped offsides and he had a "free" play, was intercepted by Perkins. OU continued the turnover-into-touchdown theme, driving 45 yards for a 28-0 lead.