Second half lessens concerns on depth

Published September 3, 2006

TAMPA - Everyone knew replacing Andre Hall, USF's all-time leading rusher, would not be an easy task.

But in Saturday night's season opener against McNeese State, the Bulls' depth concerns had them relying on a pair of walk-ons for much of their running game.

With sophomore Ricky Ponton suspended, redshirt freshman Moise Plancher got his first start and rushed for 26 yards on the opening drive. He did not play after that series, however, walking gingerly on the sideline with what looked to be an injured right ankle.

Without their top two backs, the Bulls turned to a pair of redshirt freshman walk-ons - Ben Williams of Lake Wales and Seminole's Colby Erskin. Williams had 26 yards in the opening quarter, and Erskin nearly scored the team's first touchdown of the season, running into teammate Marcus Edwards inside the 1-yard line in the second quarter.

Replays showed Erskin fumbled into the end zone, which would have resulted in a touchback, and though the play was reviewed, officials upheld the ruling on the field. Quarterback Matt Grothe scored from 1 yard on the next play.

The Bulls also used former walk-on Walt Smith, who scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, as well as freshman Keeley Dorsey, who missed much of the last week of practice until he was cleared by the NCAA on Thursday. Dorsey had a 52-yard touchdown on the game's final play.

INJURIES: Plancher wasn't the only key player sidelined with injury in the opener. Starting quarterback Pat Julmiste left in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury and did not return. Sophomore Marc Dile, the starting right tackle, went down with an injured left knee in the third quarter and had to be helped off the field.

BLOCK PARTY: The Bulls fumbled a botched punt in the end zone for a McNeese State touchdown, but they also got to McNeese's punter, blocking one punt and getting in the backfield for a turnover on downs in the fourth quarter.

Cornerback Trae Williams blocked a punt in the final two minutes of the first half, but the Bulls weren't able to convert it to any points. In the fourth, speedy cornerback Ryan Gilliam tackled punter Blake Bercegeay for a 14-yard loss. Two plays later, Grothe found receiver Ean Randolph for a 10-yard touchdown and a 21-10 lead.

WELCOME ABOARD: At least 15 players made their USF debuts, including three freshmen in punter Ilia Petrov, defensive end Josh Smiley and Dorsey.

Nine Bulls made their first career starts: Randolph (Durant), tackle Jared Carnes (St. Petersburg Catholic), guard Jake Griffin (Armwood), tight end Will Bleakley (Crystal River), Plancher, defensive ends George Selvie and Treco Bellamy, defensive tackle Woody George and safety Jeremy Burnett.

THIS AND THAT: Hall, cut by the Chicago Bears on Friday, attended and was on the sideline. He hopes to join a team's practice squad next week. ... Ponton, receiver Jackie Chambers and defensive end Josh Julmiste were suspended from the game, and two other players - sophomore receiver Jessie Hester and redshirt freshman cornerback Antwane Cox - did not dress with no explanation from USF. ... After a handful of penalties on the offensive line, the Bulls changed their starting five by the second quarter. Senior Thed Watson, who had been a redshirt possibility this season, replaced Carnes, and sophomore Matt Huners replaced junior Walter Walker at right guard. ... Senior defensive tackle Tavarious Robinson, who Leavitt has said will likely redshirt this season, did not dress.

- GREG AUMAN, Times staff writer