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A prime time

The Bulls shut down the Falcons, No. 25 in the coaches' poll, with bowl scouts there.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
USF defenders John Miller and Kawika Mitchell pressure Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris in the second quarter.
TAMPA -- It was early August, just before two-a-days, on a rainy afternoon much like Saturday. South Florida coach Jim Leavitt, inside Raymond James Stadium for media day, offered a candid forecast of his team's potential in a rare unguarded moment.

This team, his team, was going to explode at some point this season, he said. He repeated it, using the same key word: explode.

The moment arrived Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. In a seminal event in USF sports history, the Bulls (8-2) blindsided Bowling Green 29-7.

The Falcons (8-2), No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, were overwhelmed.

"I was just standing on the sideline in awe," Leavitt said. "I was really taken aback by our football team. At the end I was emotionless, because I was so impressed with the way our players played. They really played.

"I told them to go in expecting to win and play with confidence. We rose up pretty good."

Hundreds of fans hopped out of the stands and collected at midfield, chanting "USF! USF!" with the Bulls players.

The Bulls held a 383-226 yardage advantage, and if not for the punting game (one blocked, one wayward snap), they would have notched a shutout: Bowling Green's only points came on an 18-yard drive after the block.

USF throttled the nation's third-best scoring offense. Bowling Green was averaging 44 points and more than 230 yards rushing and passing. Falcons quarterback Josh Harris, who was responsible for 21.56 points a game, first in the nation, was 10 of 24 for 84 yards. He rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts.

"We came out here and smashed them in the mouth," USF senior defensive end Chris Daley said. "In the locker room, the defense, we talked about 'swarm and punish.' You've got to come with that killer mentality."

The Bulls did not commit a turnover and allowed four first downs in the first half, when they surged to a 23-7 lead.

"It was a complete game," safety J.R. Reed said. "Usually the offense or defense plays good, maybe for a half. Tonight it was both for the whole game."

The Bulls extended their home win streak to 19, second-longest in the nation, and escalated their bowl hopes in front of representatives of the Motor City Bowl. USF closes its regular season Saturday at Houston.

"We've got two games to go," senior cornerback Maurice Tucker said, alluding to the possible bowl game. "We still haven't played our best. ...

Tucker didn't finish the sentence, as fellow cornerback Ron Hemingway jumped on his back, shouting, "I love you dog!"

The seniors completed their home careers in style, 25-1 over four years at Raymond James Stadium.

"There's just something about our home territory," Daley said. "We don't want anybody to get a win, or a yard, in our house."

While Bowling Green's offense was smothered -- 90 first-half yards -- USF moved easily. Senior quarterback Marquel Blackwell rushed nine times for 56 yards and completed 21 of 40 passes for 220 yards, 1 touchdown and no interceptions, extending his streak of passes without a pickoff to 199.

Bowling Green took the early lead, forcing a three and out and blocking a punt. Harris carried it in four plays later from the 8 for a 7-0 lead.

It was all USF from there. An 86-yard drive evened it at 7. Blackwell rolled left from the Bowling Green 42 and threw into the end zone to Chris Iskra. The junior from Clearwater Central Catholic deftly outdueled a defender for the score.

The Bulls went up 9-7 when Bowling Green, from its 10, surrendered a safety as a shotgun snap sailed over Harris' head. USF extended it to 16-7 on a 9-yard run by DeJuan Green. In the second quarter the Bulls seized command, marching 77 yards in 12 plays. Clenton Crossley capped the drive with a 2-yard score for a 23-7 halftime lead.

In the third quarter, a bad USF punt snap gave the Falcons the ball deep in Bulls territory. But safety John Miller drilled Harris at the USF 5 as he rushed over left tackle, causing and recovering a fumble.

The Bulls tacked on two Santiago Gramatica field goals, from 38 and 31 yards, to complete the scoring.

The Falcons entered 16-4 the past two seasons, 5-0 against schools from BCS conferences. Bowling Green is one of three teams receiving votes in the ESPN/USA Today poll (along with Northern Illinois and Southern Miss) that USF has defeated this season.

The Bulls never have received votes in either national poll. That could change today.

"They were saying that South Florida was going to be a good team 5, 6 years down the road," Daley said. "We wanted to make a statement that it's not 5, 6 years down the road, it's now. South Florida comes to play.

"With the way we beat them, we should be in the Top 25."

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