A fight for recognition gains more traction

Published November 5, 2006

TAMPA - Around here, the fight is never-ending.

The game always feels like some rite of passage in the playground, and the coach usually behaves as if the neighbors are eyeballing him.

I suppose it's that way for most intruders. And few college football programs have nosed their way into the business of others the way South Florida has. In the state. In Division I-A. And, nowadays, in the Big East conference.

Anybody can win a game, but USF specializes in making statements. Take Saturday's 22-12 victory against Pittsburgh. It didn't stamp the Bulls as contenders in the Big East, but it suggests Louisville and West Virginia might want to invest in some extra game tapes.

"We all knew how big this game was," Bulls linebacker Ben Moffit said. "It was like, 'Enough talking, let's just get it done.' "

And so it goes for a program recently invited to the adults' table. USF is in constant need of approval. The Bulls are longing to show last season was no fluke, and this season will not pass easily for those in the way.

So will USF finish at the top of the Big East?

That's doubtful.

But will it have a say in who does?

Now, that's intriguing.

The Bulls play Syracuse, Louisville and West Virginia in succession the next three weeks. A victory against Syracuse puts USF in better position for a bowl the Bulls are already eligible. A victory against either of the final two would put USF in national headlines.

"We heard it over and over again how Louisville and West Virginia still had to play Rutgers and Pittsburgh. Rutgers and Pittsburgh. Rutgers and Pittsburgh," coach Jim Leavitt said. "I'm sitting here thinking, 'You know we play those two guys also. And we've beaten Louisville two out of the last three years. Why aren't we even involved? Why are they acting like we don't have a shot in hell?'

"It's like we don't exist."

Whether a slight is real or perceived, it is always felt deeply at USF. The Bulls could be invited to the White House for breakfast, and they'd wonder who got the lunch and dinner invitations. And why no dessert?

It is the attitude of lifelong underdogs, and it suits these Bulls well. They are, for the most part, players not recruited by traditional powerhouses, and they're at Raymond James Stadium with something to prove.

On Saturday, they proved they are not to be trifled with. It is a lesson, frankly, others should have already learned. There was, of course, the whipping of Louisville last season. And then there was the way they scared the knickers off Rutgers this season.

Whether you believe Pitt was caught by surprise or just manhandled by a superior team probably depends on which bench you sit behind.

But there should be no debate about which team deserved Saturday's victory. The Bulls had four turnovers, 105 yards in penalties, bungled a punt, had a field goal blocked and missed an extra point. And still they won with relative ease.

"It was pretty much a must-win game," cornerback Trae Williams said. "We're trying not to think too much about a bowl, but we knew what this game meant. We had to have this one."

Up until a couple of weeks ago, the Bulls had not strayed far from the season's script. They won when expected, and lost a tough one to Rutgers. Maybe USF should have beaten Kansas in September, but that one could be overlooked.

It was the loss in Cincinnati on ESPN that was threatening to haunt an entire season. It dropped the Bulls into the bottom half of the Big East standings, and put their bowl chances at risk.

"I took that one hard," Leavitt said. "Not because it was prime- time television, but because we didn't play well. And that bothered me."

Which helps explain the significance of Saturday's game. If you believe USF will beat last-place Syracuse next week, then it needed an upset against either Pitt, Louisville or West Virginia to get the seven wins needed for serious bowl consideration.

And now that the Bulls have handled Pittsburgh so easily, an upset in Louisville or West Virginia is not so hard to imagine. That's why, as usual, it was more than just a game for USF on Saturday.

A season in danger of being lost was rescued.

And, for the doubters, another statement was made.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811 or romano@sptimes.com.