By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
USF's Big East debut is wildly successful as the Bulls rout the preseason conference favorite.
TAMPA - In the north end zone, high-fiving the cheering green-and-gold fans that police were struggling to keep off the field, USF's players just soaked it all in.
So this is what the Big East feels like.
"That felt so good, I almost passed out," running back Andre Hall said. "I was so happy, so excited for this team."
The USF Bulls, who came in as three-touchdown underdogs, earned the biggest victory in their history Saturday night, stunning No. 9 Louisville 45-14 and making an unimaginably memorable entrance to the Big East.
"This is so phenomenal," USF president Judy Genshaft said. "It puts USF on the map, nationally. It shows the potential and the achievements of this football team."
The Big East was supposed to be Louisville's to lose, a speed bump on the way to a BCS game. The league's consensus preseason favorite was soundly defeated - only once in its short history has USF beaten a Division I-A opponent by more, and it had never beaten a team in the Associated Press Top 25.
Sports Illustrated had a writer at Raymond James Stadium, and though he came to write about Louisville, he left with a different story.
"This is a big win, certainly," coach Jim Leavitt said. "They're a very good football program. Louisville can flat play, we all know that. I thought the crowd (33,586) was big. It was so vocal, with so much emotion there."
The cause of much of that was sophomore Amarri Jackson, a 6-foot-5 receiver who played basketball at Hillsborough Community College last year. On USF's second play, he caught a lob pass and went 57 yards to the Louisville 1-yard line, setting up the Bulls' first touchdown.
Jackson scored USF's next two touchdowns, on reverses of 51 and 12 yards, for an improbable 21-0 lead. He finished a breakout performance when, on a third reverse, the former high school quarterback pulled up and lofted a pass to tight end Derek Carter, who was open in the end zone.
"We put it all together and won this as a team," said Jackson, who had only two catches for 15 yards this season before Saturday. "We've been talking about it for a long time. We did it. I had the jitters, couldn't wait until I saw those three zeros up there."
Facing a defensive end (Elvis Dumervil) who set an NCAA record with six sacks in a game two weeks ago, the Bulls held Louisville without a sack.
Facing an offense that scored 63 a week earlier, the Bulls held the Cardinals to a single touchdown until the game's final six minutes. By then, chants of "OVERRATED" were replaced by a prouder cheer: "U-S-F, U-S-F."
"Everybody doubted us, everybody thought we were going to lose, but we came through," said Chad Simpson, who took the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a huge touchdown. "Nobody expected the score to be like this, but we just did our thing."
Today, the Bulls are somewhere that few expected them to be: tied for first atop the Big East standings.
Saturday's win puts the Bulls in position to contend for their first bowl appearance. USF needs three wins in its remaining seven games to become bowl-eligible, and would likely not need to beat another ranked opponent to potentially win a conference crown. When this week's Top 25 comes out, USF could receive votes for the first time.
"I can't describe it," offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "This was supposed to be the big dogs of the Big East. We knew what we had to do, and our kids responded."
Louisville (2-1) piled up 493 yards of offense, but had trouble finding the end zone. Four times in the first half, the Cardinals got inside the USF 35 without scoring. They went 0-for-3 on fourth down, had a field goal bounce off an upright, and on the final play of the first half, Louisville's Mario Urrutia took a pass 66 yards down the sideline, only to be pulled down by USF's Trae Williams at the 12.
Two years ago, USF upset Louisville 31-28 in double overtime in its home Conference USA debut, but this was a much bigger game, and a much more dominating victory. Coach Bobby Petrino has six losses in his three seasons with the Cardinals, and two have come to USF in Tampa.
Louisville's defense keyed on Hall, who finished with 83 yards on 22 carries, including two short touchdowns. Leavitt said he was inspired by the way his players, including defensive standouts Mike Jenkins and Ben Moffitt, battled cramps, went into the locker room to get IV hydration, then came back to finish the game.
"These kids fought their tails off," co-defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "They were laying out there, giving everything they had."