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College football: USF 31-Cincinnati 16
In sniffing distance
A BCS berth is two wins away for USF, whose defense keys a 31-16 victory over Cincinnati.
By GREG AUMAN
Published November 20, 2005
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Bulls quarterback Pat Julmiste dives to the Bearcats 1 on a 6-yard scramble in the fourth quarter. Julmiste ran it in two plays later, giving USF a 31-7 lead.
TAMPA - As the final seconds ticked away, USF coach Jim Leavitt bolted from his sideline in a full sprint to midfield, trying his best to dodge the celebration - as in the icy cooler his players chased him with - and the ramifications that followed his Bulls' 31-16 win against Cincinnati on Saturday.
"We're bowl eligible, but it doesn't mean we're going to a bowl game," the intensely focused one-game-at-a-time coach said. "We've got six wins."
But like Leavitt's white polo shirt stained light blue from the gallons of sports drink dumped on his head, this was a win that will leave its mark on the Bulls.
"It's just the start," said running back Andre Hall, who rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown. "We're not here just for a bowl game. We want the championship, not just a bowl game, but to play for a championship. But to play at home, to get bowl eligible at the house, it's pretty big."
The Bulls (6-3, 4-1) need only a win next Saturday at Connecticut (4-5, 1-4) to set up their season finale, Dec. 3 at home against West Virginia, as a Big East championship game, with a BCS berth going to the winner.
"It's a stepping stone," defensive end Terrence Royal said. "We've worked hard for this, since January, all through summer. We were not going to settle for anything less. We were going to get a bowl berth."
USF, playing at home for the first time in eight weeks, was carried by its defense again, which broke open a 10-7 game in the third quarter with two turnovers. Cornerback D'Juan Brown intercepted Dustin Grutza's pass and returned it 26 yards for a score. Four minutes later the Bulls forced a Grutza fumble and recovered on the Cincinnati 22, setting up an Amarri Jackson score on a reverse.
Turnover margin has fueled the Bulls' three-game win streak, as USF has forced 11 while giving the ball up just once.
"That can change the whole game," Hall said. "The defense has been standing up and taking charge. That's what we need. The offense isn't putting the ball on the ground. No picks, no fumbles."
The Bulls running game struggled early, with left tackle Thed Watson out with an ankle injury and tight end Derek Carter sidelined early with a shoulder injury. Hall was held to 23 yards on 15 first-half carries, but the Bulls had a 10-0 lead in part due to superb third-down passing from Pat Julmiste, who converted four straight on the opening drive.
That netted only a Kyle Bronson field goal, but early in the second quarter, another third-down Julmiste completion from the Cincinnati 9 set up Hall's 1-yard touchdown.
The Bulls all but locked up a bowl berth, which would be in the BCS with two more wins. Even if USF beats Connecticut but loses to West Virginia, the likely match is Dec. 31 in Charlotte at the Meineke Car Care Bowl, which had its executive director among the 27,204 at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bulls have been bowl eligible once before, with a 9-2 record after the 2002 season. USF nearly had a trip to Hawaii that December but lost those hopes when Cincinnati beat East Carolina and took the Bulls' spot, a fact not lost on them as they celebrated Saturday.
The Bulls are relishing their role as potential Cinderellas, touted last week in an ESPN.com column as "the skunks in the BCS garden." Jackson, whose wild touchdown came after he fumbled in the backfield, then weaved through the Bearcats defense, showed up for postgame interviews with a black-and-white skunk cap, complete with tail and a USF logo on the front.
"I wore it around campus all week, and I'll wear it wherever we go tonight," said a smiling Jackson, who said he got the skunk from Leavitt on Monday. "We're stinkin' it up."
Leavitt's frantic running after the game did him no good. His players tracked him down for his third postgame shower this season. The chill he got is like what the Bulls might have Saturday at Connecticut - "I told our guys it's going to be freezing cold, probably snowdrifts, you'll probably see huskies running all over," he said - and that's where Leavitt's focus is now, despite his players' best efforts to get him to enjoy a big victory.
"We had to chase him to get him down, but he knew what time it was," Royal said. "There's no running from us. ... Our coaches work real, real hard, and this is our way of showing them we appreciate it, to have fun. Just for a little bit."