SOUTH FLORIDA 16, SOUTHERN MISS 13: The Bulls beat the team that has won four of six titles in the league that kept USF waiting until 2003.
By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 2002
TAMPA -- It's official: Conference USA severely underestimated South Florida.
The Bulls could have provided a jolt to a flat conference this season. Instead they jolted the best team in league history Saturday, coming from behind to defeat Southern Miss 16-13 before a raucous 28,101 at Raymond James Stadium.
As time expired, Southern Miss' Curt Jones missed a tying field goal from 44 yards. Bedlam instantly ensued and USF cavorted on the field long after the kick drifted wide right.
"They told us we shouldn't be in Conference USA. They said, "quality, not quantity,' " said USF safety J.R. Reed, paraphrasing a 1999 comment from Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower. "But we showed them quality tonight."
USF (4-2) wanted to join C-USA in 2001, but in 1999 the league presidents, two months after Bower's comment, determined the Bulls would not begin C-USA play until 2003.
As everyone knows now, the Bulls, despite being in their sixth season, have proven they belong well before their official arrival.
"I don't have the words for it," said USF quarterback Marquel Blackwell, who was 20-for-37 for 246 yards with no interceptions or touchdowns. "It's a pretty huge win. It was crazy."
The four-year-old snub from the league, and Bower, was extra motivation. So did the 41-7 whipping Southern Miss administered to USF in 2000 and the defense of a home winning streak that reached 16, fourth-best in the nation.
"Basically, we've been waiting for this game for two years," USF middle linebacker Kawika Mitchell said.
Southern Miss (4-2), which has won four of the six C-USA titles, is by far the best team the Bulls have beaten in the winning streak.
A school-record four sacks by Shurron Pierson and electrifying punt returns by DeAndrew Rubin provided the impetus. Rubin had a 50-yarder in the first quarter to help stake USF to a 3-0 lead.
The Bulls, repeatedly settling for Santiago Gramatica field goals in the red zone, trailed most of the game. But Rubin's 39-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, with USF trailing 13-9, brought the crowd alive and put the Bulls at the USM 28.
Three plays later, receiver Hugh Smith scooted in from 7 yards on a reverse, with an escort from Blackwell, giving the Bulls a 16-13 lead with 9:31 left and inspiring resounding chants of "USF! USF!"
"It was a great call," Blackwell said.
With less than four minutes to go, Pierson forced a fumble which Chris Daley recovered deep in USM territory. USF moved the ball to the 1 but Blackwell bobbled an exchange, and the Golden Eagles recovered.
Then things got testy.
Southern Miss, starting from its 1, had 1:47 and three timeouts to get into field-goal range. Two completions by Dustin Almond (24 of 39, 258 yards) moved the ball to the USM 25. After a Pierson sack (breaking the mark of three, done five times, including once by Pierson), two more completions got Southern Miss across midfield.
With the crowd exhorting the defense, John Miller knocked away an Almond pass, and a short completion set up fourth and 2 from the 36 with 15 seconds left.
Eschewing a 53-yard field goal try, Almond hit LeRoy Handy for a first down at the 29. Derrick Nix ran up the middle for 2 yards and USM called timeout with two seconds left as Jones came on for the 44-yard try.
Jones hit a 45-yarder in the third quarter but pushed this one.
"We sure made it exciting at the end," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "Our team battled and battled. We just fought hard."
Louisville's upset of Florida State aside, C-USA has impressed few this season. Now a USF team labeled not strong enough to join the league yet has knocked off the conference's all-time leader in wins.
It was sweet redemption for the Bulls, who have felt slighted since 1999 and were humiliated by the loss at Southern Miss two years ago. The deferred conference membership meant the past two USF senior classes were denied the opportunity to play in C-USA.
"It meant a lot for our seniors," said junior running back Vince Brewer, who had 80 of USF's season-high 218 rushing yards.
The Bulls started strong. USF forced a punt on the first possession and Rubin returned it 50 yards to set up a 28-yard field goal by Gramatica for a 3-0 lead.
The Golden Eagles inserted Almond for starter Micky D'Angelo in the first quarter after D'Angelo took a big lick from Kevin Verpaele. Almond engineered two scoring drives to make it 10-3 USM with 5:51 to go before halftime.
A good kickoff return by Rubin put the Bulls near midfield to start a drive and Gramatica's second field goal, also from 28 yards, made it 10-6 at intermission.
The Golden Eagles threatened to extend the lead early in the third quarter but Nix (21 carries, 126 yards), rumbling in the open field, was hit from behind by Verpaele and fumbled. Bulls defensive end Tim Jones recovered at the USF 1.
The teams exchanged field goals to make it 13-9, setting up Smith's touchdown run.