Close losses indicate progress

Published October 1, 2006

TAMPA - Tough as they are, close losses are something largely new for USF's players.

The Bulls' 24-22 loss to No. 23 Rutgers at Raymond James Stadium on Friday night marked USF's second loss in less than a week by six points or fewer. It's all the more impressive when you consider that in the previous two seasons, only one of USF's 13 losses had been by as few as six points.

"It was a heck of a ballgame, but we came out on the wrong end of it," said coach Jim Leavitt, whose team is 3-2 despite trailing in the second half of all five games. "We battled back, fought, and we didn't win the game. You can't turn the ball over that many times (three) and expect to win."

Down 22-14, the Bulls rallied behind quarterback Matt Grothe, who threw a 16-yard touchdown to Ean Randolph with 15 seconds to play. His pass on what would have been a tying two-point conversion was dropped by receiver Amp Hill, keeping the Bulls from forcing overtime.

Friday's close loss follows a 13-7 defeat at Kansas six days earlier, but the narrow margins represent progress for USF's program. The Bulls' first 14 losses to teams now in BCS conferences were by at least 10 points. And of USF's seven previous losses against ranked teams, only one - 13-10 against TCU in 2003 - was by fewer than 15 points.

So the past two games, while disappointing, suggest the Bulls are competing on a closer level than they have before.

Saturday's home game against Connecticut will give the Bulls a chance to avenge their only loss of six points or fewer in the previous two seasons, a 15-10 defeat last season that cost them a shot at playing for a Big East title against West Virginia.

MR. CLUTCH: All three of Randolph's touchdown receptions this season have come in the fourth quarter, with Friday's in the back of the end zone much like the winner he caught against Central Florida two weeks earlier. In five games, Randolph already has 21 catches for 255 yards and three scores, putting him on pace to challenge USF season receiving records for catches (62), yards (661) - both set by Hugh Smith in 2002 - and touchdowns (seven by Elgin Hicks in 2003).

THIS AND THAT: Defensive tackle Richard Clebert might not play again this season because of a torn groin muscle. He has missed the past two games. ... Friday's crowd of 32,493 was 1,093 less than last year's Big East opener against Louisville. ... Walk-on punter Justin Teachey continues to improve USF's net punting. His four punts Friday averaged just 35.5 yards. But none were returned, and one was downed at the Rutgers 11. ...Linebacker Stephen Nicholas played the final quarter (and blocked a Rutgers field goal) with his right shoulder heavily wrapped. Nicholas said the injury won't keep him from playing against Connecticut. ... Kicker Mike Benzer's miss on a 40-yard field goal Friday was his third in four attempts this season from 40 yards or closer. USF's opponents are 5-for-6 from 40 and closer.