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For Bulls, greatness may be game away
By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published September 23, 2007
[DANIEL WALLACE | Times]
Matt Grothe has completed more than 60 percent of his passes without an interception in USF's three games.
TAMPA - Like everything else associated with this program, relevance arrived in a hurry for USF.
You barely had a week to get used to the idea of South Florida as a ranked team, and already it is flirting with something else. Something greater.
Five days from now, the Bulls play No. 5 West Virginia in a game that could decide the Big East Conference, could have an impact on the national championship picture and could shake loose one of Jim Leavitt's remaining marbles.
You should have seen Coach Manic after USF pounded North Carolina 37-10 on Saturday. Hair askew, mind aflutter, Leavitt paused long enough to compare the West Virginia game to one against Kentucky Wesleyan.
And then he was gone, whisked away by a state trooper security detail apparently in charge of keeping reality at bay.
"Coach Leavitt is going to be over the top this week," said receiver Taurus Johnson. "He's wired about it now."
He'll have company this time. Before the band had even stopped playing Saturday, the public address system at Raymond James Stadium announced 12,000 student tickets would be made available at 6 a.m. Monday for the West Virginia game. A Top 25 ranking, and students crawling out of bed before dawn? Yes, sir, USF has arrived.
"This is another one of those new experiences," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "We've had a lot of firsts here. We've had the first bowl, the first bowl win, the first Conference USA win ... now we're playing for real national implications.
"If we go out there and take care of business, it will be a tremendous thing for this football program."
You could argue USF has pulled off such feats before. After all, the Bulls beat Louisville when the Cardinals were ranked No. 9 in 2005. And the Mountaineers were ranked No. 7 when USF upset them in West Virginia last year.
But to many around the nation, those were one-shot deals. Shockers, if not flukes. This week, for the first time, USF will arrive at a big game with expectations following close behind.
The Bulls will likely be underdogs, but they will not be unknowns.
Take George Selvie, a speedy defensive end who is on pace to break USF's single-season sack record by, oh, lunchtime.
Take Matt Grothe, who has completed more than 60 percent of his passes without an interception in USF's three games.
Take Delbert Alvarado, who has rebounded from a placekicker's worst nightmare to suddenly become a kicking metronome.
These were not major recruits. These were not the guys Lee Corso began the season talking about. And yet, by the end of the season's first month, they have a chance to knock off one of the nation's top programs and put themselves in position for a major bowl game.
"This is about as big as it gets," said tailback Benjamin Williams.
Of course, the challenge is not simple. If you were impressed by the way USF smothered North Carolina on Saturday, you should have seen West Virginia smacking around East Carolina. An East Carolina team that recently beat North Carolina.
The Mountaineers have dual Heisman Trophy candidates with quarterback Patrick White and tailback Steve Slaton, and they have a healthy dose of animosity after being upset by the Bulls last season.
Frankly, the Bulls will not win if they play the way they did Saturday against North Carolina. There were too many penalties, too many fumbles, too many slip-ups on special teams.
Heck, the Bulls will not win if they play the way they did against Auburn two weeks ago. They've left too many points on the field, and opened too many escape routes for the opposition.
They got away with it against a flawed Auburn team, and they got away with it against an awful North Carolina team, but they will not get away with it against West Virginia.
"They're as good as there is in America and we know that," Leavitt said. "We know we're going to have to play exceptionally well to win that game."
The learning curve has been sharp for USF. The Bulls have gone from zero to sexy in no time at all. Eleven years ago, they did not exist, 11 months ago they had never won a bowl game, 11 days ago they had never been ranked.
Now, they have a chance to change the national championship picture and forever change their perception.
"This is going to be the biggest game of our lives," Selvie said.