Top-level programs rely on area players to make an impact in the biggest bowl games.
As Southern California sophomore receiver Mike Williams raced into the end zone, the pass looked like it would fall just beyond his reach.
But he had an idea.
"My intention was to knock the ball back to my body and catch it with two hands," he said.
Williams stuck out his left arm and the softly-thrown pass stuck to the palm of his hand like a Velcro-capped dart to a fuzzy board for a dazzling touchdown in the Trojans' regular-season win against Oregon State.
"It's one of the best one-handed catches you'll ever see," gushed Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the Walter Camp player of the year and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
That catch landed Williams on SportsCenter. Again.
But it also should help the nation catch on to a pretty good secret about Tampa Bay. Finally.
Williams is a former Plant High standout and leads an impressive list of about three dozen bay area products who are key contributors, if not stars, for teams playing in some of this season's most prestigious bowl games. Some of the others include:
Ohio State's Michael Jenkins (Leto) and Lydell Ross (Gaither) in the Fiesta Bowl.
Miami's Jon Peattie (Countryside) and FSU's Matt Meinrod (East Lake), Xavier Beitia (Jesuit), Jesse Stein (Shorecrest), Brodrick Bunkley (Chamberlain) and Chris Davis (St. Petersburg Catholic) in the Orange.
Florida's Shannon Snell (Hillsborough) and Andre Caldwell (Jefferson) and Iowa's Antwan Allen (Armwood) in the Outback.
Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson (Seminole) and Josh Allen (Hillsborough) and West Virginia's Kay-Jay Harris (Tampa Bay Tech) in the Gator.
Tulsa's Jorma Bailey (East Lake) in the Humanitarian.
"There has been an increase in the interest in Tampa Bay athletes," said Ross, a junior tailback who leads the defending national champion Buckeyes in rushing with 744 yards and 10 touchdowns. "You can see that by watching Saturdays."
That's a source of pride and, just as important, motivation for him and his bay area brethren.
After seeing significant time as a freshman for Maryland in 2002, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has emerged as a star for the No. 23-ranked Terrapins.
He leads the team in tackles with 124, has 10 quarterback hurries and two interceptions, including one he returned 58 yards for a touchdown against FSU, the program he grew up dreaming he would play for but that essentially didn't go after him.
But then, a lot of schools took a pass on Jackson and, given the bay area's history, that's understandable. College coaches flock here for baseball prodigies. Football? Well, Hillsborough County ended a 34-year drought without a state title in football when Armwood won Class 4A on Dec. 11. Pinellas County teams have zero championships. "The Tampa area gets overlooked a bit by people at times simply because you have so many players from Miami, so many players from Broward County, so many from Jacksonville," FSU recruiting coordinator John Lilly said.
Jackson has done his best to alter the perception.
In words and deeds.
"From the time I got up here, I was telling my coaches that there's some ballplayers back home," he said. "With me succeeding, they're going to believe me even more. I don't just represent myself, I represent my entire community."
Others feel that responsibility, too.
When Michael Jenkins was coming up, college recruiters knew Hillsborough High. But Leto? For soccer, yes, but not so much for football. Yet the tall, fast receiver appeared an exception and landed center stage in Columbus, Ohio.
He burst on the scene as a sophomore in 2001, culminating with 152 yards against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, then had 61 catches for 1,076 yards and six touchdowns during the Buckeyes' championship run. He leads the No. 7 Buckeyes in receiving with 50 catches for 738 yards and five touchdowns entering the Fiesta Bowl against Kansas State.
"You want to do well for the people back home," he said. "You want to have people looking at you and seeing that you're doing positive things and maybe that can motivate younger guys to do well in school and go to college."
"Kids there may look up to us, being from Tampa, so you want to keep putting Tampa on the map," echoed Ross.
Maryland sophomore tailback Josh Allen began his career at Hillsborough High, but was used sparingly in the backfield. He did, however, excel as a pass-rushing defensive end.
He later drew wide-spread interest from colleges, yet no recruiter made the trek to Chelo Huerta Field. His father had to move because of work and Allen played his last two years of high school in Maryland.
Although he missed five games with injuries, he gained 405 yards and scored eight touchdowns as a freshman last season. He leads the Terrapins with 894 yards and eight touchdowns this season, capped by a tour de force performance against Virginia on national television - 257 yards on 38 carries and two touchdowns. "I spent two years up here and two years there," he said. "I really came into my own up here, but I learned a lot down there and it's taken hold. That's how I've come as far as I have. ... I don't think (the bay area) gets its due. There's so much talent and so much competition there. I think there'd be more guys (on big-name teams) if people took their grades more seriously."
Though he didn't have a stellar senior year at Plant, Mike Williams drew serious interest from FSU and Florida. He likely would have signed with the Gators had Steve Spurrier not taken his pass-happy offense to the NFL.
A break for the No. 1-ranked USC Trojans.
"He's been a fantastic addition to our program," said coach Pete Carroll, who's preparing his team to meet No. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl. "Mike saw something that he really liked when he came out and visited us at our UCLA game the first year we were there and he has continued to surprise everybody with his excellence. He's done so much in two years and has been such a huge factor. He's a prototype big receiver. He's been able to just about have his way for the first two seasons. He's been awesome."
As a freshman, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Williams had 81 receptions for 1,265 yards and 14 touchdowns. Even with the departure of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Carson Palmer, he has followed with 87 catches for 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns. He earned first-team Associated Press All-America honors and even garnered more than a handful of Heisman votes (12 first-place votes and 78 points overall to finish eighth).
"Last year, when the ball came my way, people kind of held their breath whether or not I'd catch it," he said. "Now they expect it."
To Williams and other former bay area stars, it's only a matter of time before more folks realize the talent in their hometown.
"I'm surprised it hasn't been more heavily recruited until the past four or five years," FSU sophomore offensive guard Matt Meinrod said. "The Tampa Bay area is definitely a hot spot."
Jackson couldn't agree more, something that invariably comes to mind whenever he talks with a friend from Largo High, Marcus Paschal, who's now a redshirt freshman defensive back at Iowa and will be home for the holidays and a bowl.
"He's been doing a good job," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's certainly got a bright future as well."
Sophomore defensive back Antwan Allen is fifth on the team in tackles with 56 and Ferentz said he's a big part of an improving defense. Meanwhile, Ferentz is high on his third bay area player, former Armwood star defensive back Chris Brevi, who has been redshirted as a freshman.
"The area's starting to sparkle," Jackson said. "All it takes is a couple guys to get the spotlight."
"He's also been a pioneer," Carroll said. "He's opened up the door for us to recruit kids around the country. We kept pushing Michael as a freshman, and we were able to go in homes all around the nation and recruit kids because of the success Mike has had. Guys realize they can go to Los Angeles and make a big name for themselves as well as play for a championship football team."
For the record, the Trojans have two Floridians, Williams and sophomore Mike Ross, a second-string safety. He's from St. Petersburg Catholic.
Nice catch, coach.
- Times staff writer Pete Young contributed to this report.