USF 31, MEMPHIS 28: The Bulls nearly lose a 28-7 lead but top another C-USA team.
By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2002
TAMPA -- When you lead the nation in penalties and have committed 10 in the game, having your fate in the hands of an official can be dicey.
But that was exactly how things unfolded Saturday for South Florida. As time expired, Memphis quarterback Danny Wimprine threw a would-be winning 42-yard touchdown pass to Antoine Harden to give the Tigers a three-point victory -- if the penalty was against USF.
Harden had blatantly jostled USF cornerback Maurice Tucker for position. A flag flew.
The crowd of 32,770 anxiously awaited the call ... offensive pass interference. USF held on, 31-28.
"The guy definitely pushed off on Tucker," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "But the way calls go sometimes, you just don't know."
The 18-game home win streak, perfect record against Conference USA and perhaps a bowl berth had been saved.
"I'm tired. I don't know if I've ever been this drained," Leavitt said. "I'm exhausted. And I didn't play a snap."
The hair-raising play actually was the second-to-last. USF (7-2) had to sweat out another Hail Mary attempt. Since the Bulls accepted the 15-yard penalty on Harden, Memphis was allowed an untimed down. From his 43, Wimprine lofted another pass, and it was intercepted short of the end zone by J.R. Reed.
The Tigers have had turnover problems (minus-13 differential) but executed almost flawlessly Saturday. A fourth-quarter interception by USF's Ron Hemingway was their only turnover until Reed's.
"I said all along it'd be a game that came down to an offensive drive or a defensive stand," Leavitt said. "It's not that we let down in the second half. (Memphis) battled their butts and really fought.
"I had watched this team play, and the only reason I saw them lose was because of turnovers."
Up 28-7 at halftime, the Bulls appeared on their way to an easy win on homecoming before their largest crowd at Raymond James Stadium. With quarterback Marquel Blackwell directing an efficient offense, the Bulls ripped off touchdowns on four straight possessions in the second quarter.
But Wimprine (32 of 53, 314 yards, 2 touchdowns) rallied Memphis (2-8) to three second-half scores. The Tigers, who have lost six straight, had three possessions after cutting it to 31-28. Hemingway's interception snuffed one, and two sacks by Tim Jones appeared to lock up the win.
After Jones' second sack, Memphis was inside its 20 with less than a minute to go and no timeouts, but two Wimprine completions set up the nullified touchdown.
"I was just hoping the defense would get to him," Blackwell said. "I saw the ball in the air, but I didn't see (Harden) catch it."
The home winning streak is tied with Texas for second-longest in the nation behind Miami's 20. USF improved to 3-0 this season against C-USA foes and went over. 500, 11-10, all-time against Division I-A teams. USF has won 12 of its past 14 overall and avenged a 17-9 loss at Memphis last season.
Blackwell (24 of 36, 246 yards, 3 touchdowns, no interceptions) extended his streak to 159 passes without an interception. He was 17 of 21 for 190 yards with all of his touchdowns in the first half. Two went to senior Hugh Smith, whose fifth catch gave him 53 on the season, surpassing the school record 52 set by Huey Whittaker last season. USF's goal-line stand in the first quarter set the stage for the second-quarter blitz. From the USF 2, Memphis ran the ball into the middle of the line four times, coming within half a yard of scoring on the final three. On fourth down, Wimprine, who tried a sneak on third, bumped running back Dante Brown on the handoff. Brown tumbled into the pile, coming up short.
Two possessions later, the Bulls marched to their first of four rapid-fire scores. The longest of their touchdown drives was 2:06.
But USF, which gained 306 yards in the first half, was held to 113 in the second.
"They had a lot of holes early, but they did a pretty good job in the second half," Blackwell said.
Dubious officiating helped Memphis, which was without star freshman running back DeAngelo Williams (knee sprain), cut the score to 28-13 on the opening possession of the second half. Two penalties on the USF secondary seemed unwarranted.
The Tigers' next drive was abetted by a dead-ball personal foul penalty on USF, giving Memphis first and goal from the 5. Wimprine carried it in on an option keeper to make it 28-20.
Memphis drove 77 yards early in the fourth quarter and made the two-point conversion, to trim the lead to 31-28. The Tigers blocked a 25-yard field goal attempt by Santiago Gramatica with four minutes to go to stay within three.