Bulls gain everything except for the hype
Coach Jim Leavitt still sees things for USF to work on after a thorough win.
By GREG AUMAN
Published October 15, 2006
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - The running game was steady. The defense came up with interceptions at the right times. Even the trick plays worked.
And still, moments after Saturday's 37-20 win over North Carolina, USF coach Jim Leavitt tried to downplay its significance, did his best to point out the flaws his team had to overcome.
Perhaps it would be easier to believe if he weren't soaking wet from the water cooler his players dumped on him in the final seconds.
"I was disappointed in a number of things," Leavitt said in opening his postgame comments after his team improved to 5-2, building confidence for the final stretch of five games against Big East rivals.
It is, after all, just a win against 1-5 UNC, which hasn't beaten a Division I-A team. But it's also the first time in five years - and second time ever in 12 chances - that USF has won a nonconference game against a BCS opponent.
"It was a beautiful day until the game started," UNC coach John Bunting said. "We continue to do not enough things to win and a lot of things to help us lose."
Saturday's win, before a decidedly blue crowd of 44,000 at Kenan Stadium, was the second week in a row the Bulls took an early lead and used their running game to stay in control.
"It's big. It puts us a step closer to our goal of going to a bowl," said quarterback Matt Grothe, who hit 14 of 21 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown despite a sore foot that limited him to two days of practice in the week leading to the game.
Running back Ricky Ponton, one of three Bulls making season debuts after six-game suspensions for violating team rules, rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns, taking pressure off Grothe (38 yards rushing) and walk-on running back Ben Williams (55).
With the suspended players back and defensive tackle Richard Clebert returning after missing three games with a groin injury, this was the first time the Bulls played at close to full strength this season.
Down 7-0 early, USF intercepted two Cam Sexton passes in UNC territory, contributing to a run of three touchdowns in a span of 6:03 for a 20-7 lead. The Tar Heels wouldn't get closer than 10 points again.
"I just turned around and there's the ball," said senior linebacker Stephen Nicholas, who got his first interception in 44 games at USF. "The more turnovers, the more the offense can score."
USF's first touchdown - on a 19-yard reverse by receiver Taurus Johnson - came after three consecutive first downs on runs by Ponton.
Nicholas' interception set up a 21-yard touchdown from Grothe to S.J. Green for a 14-7 lead, and two plays later, Sexton gave the Bulls the ball back again, with sophomore safety Danny Verpaele returning his first career interception to the UNC 18 to give the offense another short field.
"We kind of jumped on them," Verpaele said. "If you can take that kind of momentum away from a team, they're going to want to give up."
As they did a week earlier against Connecticut, the Bulls put the game away with touchdowns on their first two second-half drives.
That included a bold call on fourth and 1 at the UNC 26, with receiver Amarri Jackson throwing a 25-yard pass to Cedric Hill, setting up Williams' 1-yard touchdown run.
The Bulls put the game away with a 15-play, 71-yard drive that ate up nearly half the fourth quarter, ending on a 26-yard field goal by freshman Delbert Alvarado.
USF's only other nonconference win against a BCS conference team was at Pittsburgh in 2001. The Bulls close with five straight games against Big East teams, knowing their next win will make them bowl eligible.
USF outgained UNC 201-67 after halftime, and Leavitt said coming out of the second half strong was a priority. He was talking about Saturday's game, but could have just easily meant the Bulls' season.
"We really felt like the second half today was going to be pivotal, like we needed to get out and really play," Leavitt said. "I thought the guys responded pretty well."