tampabay.com

USF's best drama awaits in final acts

By GARY SHELTON
Published November 12, 2006


TAMPA - The quarterback is impressive, all right. But does he make them nervous in Louisville?

The pass rush can be fierce at times. But does it concern people in Morgantown?

The program has established itself firmly among the pretty good. But does its name ring a bell across the Big East?

When it comes to the University of South Florida, there is what we have established and what we still have to learn. It is as if the season, to this point, is a pretty good movie, but the parts you will remember are the parts you have not yet seen.

At this point, we know USF has had a pretty good season. We know that from the early season struggles it has come a pretty long way. We have learned that with freshman Matt Grothe, the team has enjoyed a pretty good ride.

"And now," says Bulls coach Jim Leavitt, "let's play for a championship."

Suddenly, all the stakes are on the table. If USF wants something more than pretty good from its season, its opportunity is here. With next weekend's game at Louisville, with the following weekend's game at West Virginia, the Bulls have a chance to make a name for themselves.

When USF handled Syracuse 27-10 on Saturday afternoon, it was like watching a student take his final pop test of the semester. The finals are coming up, and as everyone knows, they make up most of your grade. On every play the Bulls succeeded, and on every one they struggled through, you could not help but wonder what such a play would mean against the two Top 10 programs that lie ahead.

Grothe threw for 364 yards, and you wondered: What would he have done against the Louisville secondary?

Linebacker Stephen Nicholas was everywhere, and you wondered: Could he have helped slow West Virginia's running game?

The Bulls won their seventh game of the season - an impressive total if you remember the way they played early - and you wondered: Can they hang in there with the big boys?

More than anything, that is what is at stake for the Bulls. You hear a lot of talk about the Big East these days, but almost none of it includes USF. It is Rutgers' league right now, and then there is Louisville and West Virginia, and as far as ESPN is concerned, everyone else is named Ned.

It drives the Bulls a little crazy, to tell you the truth, but right now, the impression is that USF is a backup singer, a supporting actor, a substitute teacher. It is just another team going to just another bowl.

The next 14 days could change that. Upset Louisville, and the rest of the league would notice. Upset West Virginia after that, and the nation would pay attention. Do that, and even if it didn't result in a Big East title, the Bulls would have turned a pretty good season into something special.

"I'm excited," Leavitt said. "We have to go up and do the thing nobody expects us to do, and that's beat Louisville at (its) place. Everybody in the world would say, 'Ah, that isn't going to happen.' But I imagine we'll go up and give them a try."

Okay, okay. A dose of realism here. The Bulls left about three touchdowns on the field Saturday, and Leavitt admits his team will have to play much better in the weeks to come to have even a puncher's chance of winning. There were too many penalties, too many turnovers, too many botched opportunities.

Perhaps it says something that USF can beat a program as storied as Syracuse by 17 points and walk away dissatisfied, but that is where the program has come. The goal, however, was never to get to the middle of the Big East.

"I'm a little disappointed we're not 10-0, to be honest," Leavitt said. "I would like to be in better position. Our goal was to get to this point and play Louisville with everything on the line."

That didn't happen. The Bulls had a shot at beating Kansas but didn't, a shot at tying Rutgers but didn't. Still, the momentum that USF seemed to be losing at the beginning of the season has been largely restored. This South Florida team has improved as much over the course of the season as any Leavitt has had.

And you wonder: Is it enough?

Whatever we are to remember of this USF season, we will see over the next two weeks.

On the road, in prime time, against a Louisville team that ought to have a burr under its saddle from last year's whipping by the Bulls.

On the road, against a West Virginia team that has the most weapons of any team in the league.

As for Leavitt, he'll see, too. But in his postgame ramble, when thoughts from every series and every phase of the game spill out of him, he made an interesting reference. Out of the blue, Leavitt was suddenly quoting the movie Cinderella Man.

Soon, we will see just how powerful a punch his program packs.