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Ugly win for a start

USF 28, ARMY 0: The Bulls allow no points in C-USA debut but also score few for style.

PETE YOUNG
Published September 28, 2003

WEST POINT, N.Y.- The rain passed, the sun popped in and out of billowing clouds and suddenly the world was perfect: A late September afternoon football game at venerable Michie Stadium, nestled in the rolling hills along the west bank of the Hudson River at the historic U.S. Military Academy.

Just perfect. Except the football.

South Florida's Conference USA debut was a success, a 28-0 victory over Army before 30,509. It won't be framed for posterity, though. The Bulls couldn't have sketched a lovelier setting to begin C-USA play but, aside from a noteworthy defensive performance, it was not one to remember.

"We made a million mistakes," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "It was pretty sloppy, pretty sloppy. There's no way we can play like that and expect ever to win (in C-USA). There's no way."

Thirteen penalties (for 123 yards), four fumbles (one lost), two interceptions, several dropped passes, two missed field goals ... it added up to one of the most dissatisfying 28-0 wins ever.

"Beautiful," Leavitt said sarcastically when asked about USF's 13 penalties. "What did we have, three personal fouls? It's just discipline. We didn't show much discipline. A lot of mistakes, a lot of errors, no excuses."

West Point was beautiful, the football was ugly. But USF (2-1, 1-0) got the most important thing out of its maiden league game: a win.

"I've been here since 1999, so it's been a long wait to play in the conference," defensive tackle Lee Roy Selmon Jr. said. "It feels real good to not just get the victory, but get a shutout."

It was scoreless most of the first half as the teams combined for seven fumbles. But USF's defense was so strong - it forced six total turnovers and allowed 17 rushing and 179 total yards - the offensive hiccups mattered not.

Defensive end Tim Jones tied a team record with five tackles for loss and Selmon had two forced fumbles as the defensive front helped USF record its seventh shutout, first since 2000.

The Bulls harassed quarterback Zac Dahman into 17 of 40 passing for 116 yards. Army (0-4, 0-2), which had averaged 25 points a game, plunged to minus-11 in turnover margin this season. The Black Knights never advanced beyond the USF 34.

"That was a great game (by the defensive line)," defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz said.

The Bulls gained 370 yards but generally were erratic and committed three turnovers. The scoreless first quarter was the first time an Army opponent hadn't scored in 11 quarters.

"We've got to do a better job of finishing drives," said USF quarterback Ronnie Banks, who was the victim of several dropped passes and finished 22-for-41 for 218 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. "At some points I didn't do a good job. There were some plays I didn't make. No excuses."

USF, which hadn't played since Sept.6, scored three times in the final three minutes of the first half to seize a 13-0 lead. The key sequence came after two short Santiago Gramatica field goals, the second set up by a Selmon forced fumble, gave USF a 6-0 lead.

The Bulls forced a punt and took over with a minute to go near midfield. A 31-yard Banks-to-Whittaker pass put USF in the red zone, and pass interference on a lob in the end zone to the 6-foot-5 Whittaker put the ball at the 2. Receiver/reserve quarterback Brian Fisher, an option specialist, pitched to DeJuan Green for a 2-yard score.

The second-half highlight was Kevin Verpaele's 29-yard interception return score, the first touchdown of the senior safety's career, that capped the scoring with 6:37 to go. The Bulls left several starters in for Army's final possession to preserve the shutout.

"The seniors, we want to be remembered as winners. We had to win the first conference game," said cornerback Ron Hemingway, who had one of USF's three interceptions. "The defense had a great effort, the offense kept it going, and we'll take a win however it comes. But we know we've got to pick it up."

Its first C-USA game might not be memorable for the football, but USF will long recall its first trip to West Point.

"You come into this stadium, you see names like (1945 Heisman Trophy winner Doc) Blanchard, and the opportunity to play the game here is really a unique experience," Leavitt said.

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