USF 46, ECU 30: Touchdowns on four possessions in the second half put the Bulls over the top at a future C-USA foe.
By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2002
GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Forgive Paul Troth if he's flinching a lot this week and inexplicably jerking his head around at random moments.
The East Carolina quarterback has a case of Pierson-itis.
It invaded his system Saturday afternoon, in the second quarter of South Florida's 46-30 win over ECU. USF defensive end Shurron Pierson, in a two-minute stretch, forced a fumble on a scrambling Troth; drilled him for a sack from the blind side; then forced him into an interception, helping put the Bulls on top 15-10 at halftime.
USF quarterback Marquel Blackwell took it from there, throwing four touchdowns in the second half. He finished 19 of 33 for 321 yards and a school-record five touchdowns with no interceptions.
"I had to let everybody know last week wasn't a fluke," said Pierson, who had a school-record four sacks in a 16-13 win against Southern Miss on Oct. 12. "I was just trying to hit (Troth) as hard as I can."
Said USF coach Jim Leavitt: "The story today is Marquel, what he did with our offense. What a great day."
Pierson and Blackwell propelled the Bulls to a significant victory before 33,419. USF (5-2) earned back-to-back road wins for the first time since 1998; became the first team to beat East Carolina (2-4) on its homecoming in 14 years; and ended ECU's six-game win streak against Florida teams, including twice over Miami.
"We talked to our kids about three things going into the game," Leavitt said. "First, no Florida team had ever come up here and won (0 for 4). Second was that it was homecoming and the odds were against us. And third, they had two weeks to prepare.
"It's a great win for our program."
USF is 2-0 this season against Conference USA teams and won its third straight against the league it joins next season.
"This is what we wanted," Pierson said. "This is what we talked about at the beginning of the season."
Added Blackwell: "You want to win all the time, but we're undefeated in the conference, I'll tell you that."
Pierson was credited with one sack but essentially had four: On the forced fumble, which Ron Hemingway recovered in the end zone, Troth had scrambled to the line of scrimmage; on the interception by Greg Walls, Pierson hit Troth's arm and it easily could have been ruled a fumble, which would have made it a sack; and Pierson had a sack on a two-point conversion attempt, which is not credited to his statistics.
"I'm backpedaling, and next thing I know Shurron's on the quarterback," said safety J.R. Reed, who led the Bulls with 11 tackles.
"He has great physical talent," defensive ends coach Rich Rachel said of Pierson. "He's stepped up his game."
Pierson also should have scored a touchdown. On a third-quarter play he dropped into pass coverage, and a flustered Troth (25 of 46, 339 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) threw the ball right to him. Pierson appeared to have a clear lane to the end zone but he fumbled, untouched.
"I had it. I was so excited about it, I saw the end zone, I just didn't tuck it away," Pierson said sheepishly. "But I can catch."
It hardly mattered with the way Blackwell was operating. After ECU went ahead 17-15 early in the third quarter, the Bulls scored touchdowns on four straight series to bolt ahead 43-23.
"We got in a rhythm after halftime," Blackwell said. "We were always a play away or a penalty away from exploding."
On a postcard-perfect day, USF got off to an ugly start.
On ECU's first play Troth flipped an innocuous-looking swing pass in the left flat to tailback Art Brown. One defender was in the area, linebacker Maurice Jones. He did not make the tackle and 56 yards later, Brown scored. It was the first of many good plays for Brown, who rushed for 188 yards on 30 carries.
"I told them the first play won't decide the game, but the last play will," Leavitt said.
The Bulls answered on their next possession but still looked rattled. Blackwell and running back Vince Brewer botched a handoff, which Blackwell was fortunate to recover, and Hugh Smith dropped a pass. On third down, Blackwell found Huey Whittaker uncovered 40 yards down the right sideline. Whittaker took it 75 yards but was tackled at the 2. The Bulls couldn't punch it in and Santiago Gramatica's 19-yard field goal trimmed it to 7-3.
ECU went up 10-3 on a chip-shot field goal in the second quarter and USF responded quickly again. Blackwell hit Smith over the middle, and Smith, whose previous longest catch this season was 20 yards, dashed 43 yards for the score.
He took his helmet off to celebrate, USF was penalized 15 yards, and Gramatica pushed the 35-yard extra-point try, his first miss of the season. It turned out irrelevant as Pierson and Blackwell began cranking out the big plays.
ECU moved effectively most of the game, outgaining USF 510-410, but committed four turnovers to none for the Bulls. The Pirates, trailing by 16 late, needed two scores and two two-point conversions to tie, but USF stopped Brown on fourth down at the USF 1 with a minute to go to finish it off.