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Fit to be Tide

USF 17, ALABAMA 40: The Bulls take a 17-7 lead then wilt under Alabama's pressure and the heat.

PETE YOUNG
Published August 31, 2003

BIRMINGHAM - It happened just as everyone anticipated it would happen. Adversity struck South Florida like lightning on a clear day, straight out of the blue sky Saturday afternoon above Legion Field.

Snap, just like that, the Tide turned on USF. The problem for the Bulls: they never turned it back. Alabama defeated USF 40-17 though the Bulls thoroughly dominated almost the entire first half.

USF wilted in the humidity after halftime, getting outscored 23-0 as part of a 33-0 'Bama run.

"I didn't know we'd wear down like we did, but we did," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "It was pretty obvious.

"The bottom line was in the trenches. Their offensive line, our defensive line. They just kind of wore us out."

The Bulls, 17-point underdogs, stunned the 76,780 fans early, rolling to a 17-7 lead behind new quarterback Ronnie Banks, and it should have been larger: Alabama's first score came on an interception return of a pass that went right through a receiver's arms.

The big bolt of adversity came in the form of 10 'Bama points in the final 26 seconds of the first half to suddenly tie it at 17.

From there the Bulls buckled. Alabama had an 18-2 edge in first downs after halftime.

"It's a bad feeling. It kind of stinks," Leavitt said. "What do you take from something like this? Anger. I get angry."

With his family there, including father Don Shula, former Alabama quarterback Mike Shula began his coaching tenure with a win. It pushed aside one pregame subplot, about Alabama's pursuit of Leavitt in December.

"Having my family here was very special," Shula said. "When I came out of the tunnel here at Legion Field, it felt just like when I would come out as a player."

The game clearly pivoted 180 degrees on one play late in the first half. After Santiago Gramatica's career-long 45-yard field goal put USF ahead 17-7, 'Bama took over with 1:32 until halftime. At that point, the Tide had been outgained 187-33.

On second down at the Tide 32, quarterback Brodie Croyle (14-of-27, 203 yards) lofted a long pass down the left sideline. Receiver Zach Fletcher (three catches, 79 yards) and cornerback Bruce Gipson both leaped and got their hands on it, but Fletcher came down with it for a 49-yard gain.

"Finally, we made a play," Shula said. "We got some confidence. I liked the way the guys responded."

From there, it was all Alabama. Three plays later, the Tide scored to make it 17-14. USF's J.R. Reed fumbled the kickoff, Alabama recovered, and a Brian Bostick field goal tied it at halftime.

"We feel like we let one slip away," said USF receiver Huey Whittaker, who had team highs of five catches for 53 yards. "We had 'em. We made mistakes in the first half and still went in tied."

Alabama opened the third quarter with a chip-shot field goal, a 73-yard punt return score by Shaud Williams (28 carries, 98 yards) and a 97-yard touchdown drive to break it open. The Tide outgained the Bulls 276-69 in the second half.

"The punt return really broke our back," Leavitt said.

Several Bulls players cramped up, and Alabama seemed to cope better with the 89-degree day.

"We were in such better shape than those guys," Alabama guard Justin Smiley said. "You hate those gassers (multiple long sprints) after practice, but it paid off. We just started running power at them. You could see it in their eyes, we had them."

USF drove 50 yards on the game's second possession for the early lead, with Banks finding Brian Fisher from 13 yards for the 7-0 lead.

USF gave it back on its next series when Banks' throw went through Whittaker's arms to cornerback Charlie Peprah, who caught it and ran 51 yards untouched to tie the score.

In the second quarter, Fisher, lined up at quarterback, swept right on the option, broke a couple of tackles and scored from 17 yards for a 14-7 USF lead. The Bulls missed an opportunity to extend the advantage when Banks fumbled on fourth and inches in 'Bama territory. But they came right back with Gramatica's field goal to make it 17-7.

Banks, a redshirt junior making his first start, was impressive early in the shotgun, no-huddle offense. He finished 17-of-33 for 199 yards with one touchdown and the interception. He threw for 147 yards in the first half, 52 in the second.

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