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End result all that matters

By GARY SHELTON
Published September 26, 2004

FORT WORTH, Texas - As they say here in Frog Country, this one forgives all the warts.

All the fumbles and all the frustration? Forgiven. All the penalties and all the plodding? Absolved. All the times the offense could not move and the defense could not hold? Exonerated.

USF won a thriller Saturday night.

Also, it won a pardon.

The point of USF's forgiveness turned out to be the extra point that TCU botched late on a Texas evening. It erased all the mistakes, all the misplays of a USF team that appeared, for most of the night, to be trying desperately to gain control of its season before it spun away.

Instead, USF will remember its 45-44 win as another pulsating victory in multiple overtime. Offensive lethargy? When? Defensive lapses? Where? Rampant underachievement? By whom?

That's what victory does. It allows everyone to forget one of those nights when a team looked as if it was going nowhere slow. It allows a coach to shrug and a player to smile and a fan to suggest, hey, the Bulls had it all along.

Oh, if you wish to admit it, USF spent a great deal of the evening embedded in the middle of Amon Carter Stadium like an automobile stuck in the mud. The Bulls wasted comebacks and they botched coverages. They were sacked and they fumbled and they held and they jumped offsides on fourth and inches. They gave away a football field and a half on penalties.

At some point, Jim Leavitt may bring all of this up at a team meeting.

For the time being, he's jumping around on the field.

A wild, wacky finish by USF changed everything. Just like that, the Bulls went from a team that should get used to defeat to a team that will not accept it. Just like that, and it looks plucky and scrappy and filled with character. Just like that, all possibilities are alive.

This victory, and the emotions that surged through the Bulls at its finish, were exactly what South Florida needed. This season has taken such an emotional toll on the Bulls. There was the hurricane that postponed the first game. There was the devastating hit on Tennessee Tech receiver Drew Hixon the next week. There was the death of receiver Bruce Gipson's step-brother this week.

Oh, you doubted, didn't you? Certainly before USF's first fourth-quarter comeback, perhaps before its second. Perhaps in each of the two overtimes. Perhaps until the end.

By the end of the game, however, USF finally looked dangerous. It finally looked crisp and cohesive. More than that, it looked stubborn.

Frankly, these were the Bulls we had expected all along. Blame Leavitt for that if you wish. Over the past seven seasons, his standards have raised everyone else's.

And so, at the age of 8, we expected better than the USF team we saw in the first half. This was supposed to be USF's grand finale, the season the Bulls went rampaging through Conference USA so viciously that everyone would be relieved to see them leave. This was supposed to be the season the Bulls finally made it to a bowl game. This was supposed to be the next step up for a climbing program.

Instead, the Bulls looked like a team headed, perhaps, for that inevitable bad season. They fumbled and stumbled, and they made you think of the games to come with Southern Miss and Cincinnati and Memphis and Louisville and Pitt, and suddenly, the season looked troublesome.

Then, just like that, Pat Julmiste grew up and Andre Hall arrived and Joe Bain broke open and the offensive line jelled into a very large biceps. Just like that, the USF offense was no longer underachieving. Just like that, the Bulls were no longer checking to see if Marquel Blackwell had any eligibility left.

Like many of its predecessors, there is some scrap to this USF team. They spent most of the night clawing uphill, and still, they won.

Consider the game with four minutes to go. USF had just put together its finest drive of the season, and Julmiste had found Hall circling out of the backfield on fourth down for a touchdown, and the score was tied at 24.

Five plays later, 67 seconds later, and it was gone. That's how fast TCU regained the lead.

Can you imagine how fast the oxygen leaves your lungs at that moment? Can you imagine the feeling of watching a game slip away so quickly?

And here's the thing: The Bulls still won.

They came back again. They survived NCAA-Roulette, which is what the overtime system should be called. (USF is now 5-0 in double overtimes.) They avoided losing two in a row, which they haven't done since they messed with Arkansas and Oklahoma back-to-back in 2002.

So allow yourself to hope: Maybe this will be USF's last great ride through this conference. Maybe they'll get invited to that bowl game. Maybe Julmiste's arm and Bain's hands and Hall's legs will carry them through their schedule.

At the point of forgiveness, all things seem different.

Also, possible.

[Last modified September 26, 2004, 01:29:13]


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