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Bulls make case again

USF 32, HOUSTON 14: Another convincing win is a last chance to impress bowl selectors.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Marquel Blackwell scores in the second half, the last of his three rushing touchdowns.
HOUSTON -- If this was South Florida's final game of 2002 -- and everyone in the solar system, if not the bowl system, knows it shouldn't be -- then it was a fitting and fabulous curtain closing.

From Marquel Blackwell's record-setting brilliance to a pilfering (seven interceptions) defense spearheaded by J.R. Reed, USF finished a 9-2 season by crushing Houston 32-14.

Now, the bad news. With all bids to the 28 bowl games tied to conferences, and the NCAA last week making it easier for barely bowl-eligible schools from power conferences to grab berths, USF's first bowl game might not be forthcoming.

"If we don't go to a bowl it's a travesty and a hoax," USF coach Jim Leavitt said as Bulls fans behind him chanted, "One more game." "I didn't want to say much until after we finished this game. It's totally unfair, and if it doesn't happen it's a joke.

"It should be a no-brainer."

Needing a win to stay in the bowl chase, the Bulls played a New Year's Day-caliber game. The only downers were allowing Houston two scores after taking a 32-0 third-quarter lead, and the unsettling feeling that no matter what they did it might not be good enough for a bowl despite a BCS ranking of No. 28, according to

"Maybe I need to run naked through the streets of Tampa with a sign that says we need to go to a bowl," Leavitt said. "Really, what do we have to do? It's crazy."

USF is 15-2 in its past 17 and has seven straight wins since losing Sept. 28 at Oklahoma. "Our play speaks for itself," said Blackwell, whose eyes welled up at the end, knowing it might have been his last game as a Bull. "Call (coach Bob) Stoops at Oklahoma and ask him. Call all of the other coaches of the teams we've played, ask them if we deserve it."

At this point, at least two at-large bowl berths will available, to the Motor City Bowl and either the Seattle or San Francisco bowls. Both openings, however, could be filled thanks to contingency contracts between the bowls and a major conference.

Leavitt said he told the players before the season that 9-2 would get them to a bowl. He is much less certain now.

"It will probably take an act of Congress," Leavitt said. "Probably the president has to come out and say, 'I see an unfairness going on, and South Florida has to go to a bowl -- the American Bowl.' "

USF more than doubled its school record of three interceptions and Blackwell capped his sensational career with one of his greatest games. The senior was 23-for-36 for 305 yards with 2 touchdowns passing and 3 rushing, from 9, 1 and 5 yards.

Leavitt, trying to fire up his troops at halftime, bloodied his brow with a head-butt to a helmet. The Bulls responded. Blackwell guided USF to three scores in 5:26 in the third quarter as the lead rapidly mushroomed from 14-0 to 32-0.

Blackwell eclipsed 9,000 career passing yards in the third quarter and finished with 9,108. He extended his interceptionless streak to 235 passes, second in Division I-A history behind Trent Dilfer's 271 in 1993 at Fresno State. The Bulls also went 4-0 against Conference USA, putting an exclamation point on their two-year statement that they should have been admitted to the league in 2001, as they wanted, instead of having to wait until 2003.

USF's swarming front seven stifled Joffrey Reynolds, C-USA's leading rusher coming in with 1,337 yards.

He had 59 yards on 22 carries (2.7 average) and did not score. He was averaging 5.3 and had 11 touchdowns.

Reed and John Miller had two interceptions each and Kawika Mitchell, Maurice Tucker and Ron Hemingway had one apiece on Houston's Nick Eddy (25-for-49, 358 yards, 2 touchdowns).

The Bulls set the tone on their first possession, driving 79 yards for a 7-0 lead. The key play was a 54-yard pass between the safeties to Hugh Smith (four catches, 107 yards). Three plays later, Blackwell scrambled 9 yards for the score.

A 39-yard interception return by Mitchell set up the second USF touchdown of the first quarter. From the Houston 24, the Bulls needed five plays to make it 14-0, with Blackwell taking it in on a 1-yard sneak.

The Bulls earned some breathing room midway through the third on a drive that the school could promote as a Best of Blackwell. He connected on two long passes after juking free of the pass rush and rolling to his left.

On the first he fired a 25-yarder to Chris Iskra (eight catches, 89 yards), on the second he lofted a 39-yard touchdown to a lunging Smith to make it 20-0.

Reed intercepted passes on the next two series, setting up the scores that finished things off.

Now, the Bulls wait to see if it is enough.

Their record is especially impressive considering the Bulls are in their sixth season of football.

The Catch-22, however, is that USF's scant history and commensurate lack of recognizability is a primary reason why a bowl might opt for a team with less impressive credentials.

"What teams do you know that go 9-2 that don't go to a bowl?" Smith said. "It's our time. They can't deny us."

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