By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
USF 31, UCF 14: In the first game of the instate "rivalry" the Bulls rely on the senior running back, who responds with 189 yards.
TAMPA - Rivalries are the kind of college craziness that make fans print out 500 sheets of paper that say nothing but "17."
Not 17, like the date of Saturday's long-awaited meeting between USF and its I-4 neighbor, Central Florida, some nine years in the making. Not 17, as in the margin of victory for the Bulls, who gave up a late touchdown and settled for a dominating 31-14 win.
No, this was 17, as in 17 losses in a row for UCF, the longest streak in the nation, a streak punctuated Saturday with a lopsided start to a new in-state rivalry. The two programs combined for a crowd of 45,139, the most ever to see the Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. That crowd included a few rowdy rows of green and gold fans who were gleefully chanting "17" at the Golden Knights and holding their 17s as they left the field.
For years UCF has wanted a shot at the Bulls, and the Knights were still chasing them most of Saturday night, especially senior running back Andre Hall, who dashed, darted and spun for 189 total yards and two touchdowns behind a strong offensive line.
"We wanted to come out and put them away," Hall said. "All week I've been getting e-mails about how sorry I was, all this and that. I don't get into that. I just played my heart out, and I love when coach (Jim) Leavitt wants to run the ball like that."
The Bulls finished with 66 rushes, 10 more than any game in their history. The same Bulls who rushed for 326 yards were as convincing in stonewalling UCF's running game, holding it to negative yards into the fourth quarter.
"I was really pleased with our running game. Andre Hall ran really well," said Leavitt, whose team had the ball for 39:45, breaking the school record by 2:40. "What was really important is that we didn't allow them to run the ball." For the second week in a row the Bulls defense took a shutout into the second half, holding the Knights to 135 yards in the first three quarters. It's hard to blame the defense for the 14 points USF gave up, as a 60-yard punt return to the USF 4-yard line set up the touchdown that spoiled the shutout and a botched fake punt set up the Knights' final score with 2:11 to play.
"This was a big game for us, so it was put up or shut up," said defensive end Terrence Royal, who grabbed one of the "17" signs as a memento as he ran off the field. "We knew if we wanted to win, we had to stop the run."
The Bulls (2-1) set out to establish the run, staying on the ground for 19 of their first 23 plays. UCF (0-2) came into the game with the nation's No.5 rushing defense, having held South Carolina to 32 rushing yards in its season opener. The Bulls more than doubled that rushing total on their first drive.
Even when Hall went to the sidelines for six plays with a hand injury, the Knights had no answer for USF's running attack. Redshirt freshman Ricky Ponton broke runs of 12 and 16 yards, and on Hall's first play back in the game, he broke loose for 28 yards, including two 360-degree spins to elude Knights defenders.
For all USF's early dominance, it led only 7-0 midway through the second quarter. It took over with two scores in the final 3:02 of the half.
With Hall on the sidelines again, the Bulls marched 60 yards in 12 plays, getting a 26-yard pass to Johnny Peyton and steady running by quarterback Pat Julmiste and Ponton, who finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown.
USF linebacker Ben Moffitt sacked UCF quarterback Steven Moffett, forcing a fumble that Tavarious Robinson recovered for the Bulls on the UCF 32. Three plays later Julmiste floated a screen pass to Hall who weaved 26 yards through UCF defenders for a touchdown with 59 seconds left in the half.
Since USF launched its program in 1997, Central Florida has wanted to open a rivalry, but it took until Saturday for the teams to meet. The two play again in Orlando next season, but the Bulls had been hesitant to commit to extending the relationship beyond those two dates.
"We just won a game, so I'll just wait and see on all that stuff, let the powers that be (handle it)," Leavitt said.
One week after setting their Raymond James Stadium record with 43,122 fans against Florida A&M, the Bulls broke that mark by more than 2,000 for another first-time rivalry. USF will try for an even larger attendance this week when it makes its Big East debut against preseason favorite Louisville.