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Step closer to crashing party

The Bulls answer critics and close in on a possible league title showdown.

By GREG AUMAN
Published November 13, 2005


SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Call them what you want, but the Bulls are looking more like skunks every week.

Eager to respond to national critics questioning if they're worthy of a potential BCS berth, USF offered a statement game Saturday, a resounding 27-0 drubbing of Syracuse that turned the Orange's homecoming into the program's most lopsided home shutout in 12 years.

"You only schedule a team to be your homecoming and Senior Night when you know it's a guaranteed win," safety Johnnie Jones said. "That got us motivated."

Speaking of motivations, a column on ESPN.com last week identified the Bulls as "the skunk in the BCS garden," but the Bulls (5-3, 3-1) moved one win closer to making that possibility a $14-million reality.

"We know what skunks do in a garden: They tear it up," said Jones, whose first-quarter interception set up USF's first touchdown. "We said in the locker room, "Skunk this, skunk that.' We're going to leave a little stinkness behind in the Carrier Dome."

Syracuse (1-8, 0-6) had some of its own "stinkness" to deal with, not crossing midfield until the third quarter and not breaching the USF 39 until the final two minutes. Regardless, it's the Bulls' first shutout in two years - on the road no less - and a convincing conference victory that puts the Bulls one win away from being bowl eligible.

"Any time you can put up an egg, it's a great accomplishment," co-defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "It's a big deal, in this modern day of throwing the ball around and spread offenses. It gives the kids a lot of confidence, to work hard all week and come out and shut an offense down."

With legends Jim Brown and Floyd Little attending, Syracuse unveiled a large No. 44 jersey, retired to a corner of the Carrier Dome, but the Orange fans also saw plenty of USF's No. 2 in the end zone. Senior running back Andre Hall rushed for 222 yards - the third-best total in school history - and became USF's career rushing leader, scoring three touchdowns along the way.

"Tough, competitive, fast, and he's got a really good offensive line working for him," said Syracuse coach Greg Robinson, whose team mustered 182 yards of total offense, 75 in the fourth quarter. "You get a little low, compact guy that explodes on you and, boom, he's out."

USF had 427 yards total offense, 338 on the ground, the third-most in school history (the Bulls had 377 this season against Florida A&M). The Bulls now face two 4-5 opponents - Cincinnati and Connecticut - who were shut out by a combined 62-0 this week. Win those, and they host West Virginia on Dec. 3 with the league crown and a BCS berth on the line.

"They're a better team than I gave them credit for, completely," Robinson said.

The Bulls established their running game from the start, with Hall gaining 38 yards on the opening play. Kyle Bronson's 29-yard field goal gave USF a 3-0 lead, and after Jones' interception, Hall's first touchdown gave the Bulls a 10-0 lead.

USF's offense stalled, with three punts and a long interception, but Hall broke off runs of 34, 22 and 10 yards to set up another Bronson field goal and a 13-0 halftime lead.

"I was really concerned at 13-0," said coach Jim Leavitt, whose team failed to convert on 10 consecutive third downs at one point. "I was worried a lot about this game, especially with all the distractions. ... I was really worried about our ability to stay focused."

Hall's 34-yard touchdown run with 8:02 left in the third gave USF a 20-point cushion, and he added one more score with five minutes to play. Syracuse didn't threaten to score until the final minute, and Mike Jenkins intercepted a fourth-down pass in the end zone as time expired.

The Bulls' defense was relentless, holding Syracuse to 1 or fewer yards on seven drives. They had three interceptions, four sacks, and 13 tackles for loss, and the shutout will move them into the nation's top 20 in scoring defense. It's the kind of showing that should help deflect some of the critics who see an unknown program three wins away from the BCS.

"These kids don't get any respect. They really don't," Burnham said. "Somebody's got to recognize them, sooner or later, if we keep winning. You have to earn that respect. If we win three more games, we'll get some respect. It might take that, but we've got to close this thing out."

Leavitt, for one, isn't looking ahead at all, keeping his team's success in perspective with three games remaining.

"I told our coaches before this game, we haven't even played half the Big East schedule yet," he said. "We're just at the halfway point today. There's a lot of football, and I don't know what will happen."