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A bright future sits right in front of the Bulls, waiting to be seized
By GARY SHELTON, Times Columnist
Published September 28, 2007
With a win against West Virginia, the Bulls can become a big-time Big East program, rather than an upstart dark horse.
The size of a game is not measured by when it is being played. Friday night? High school teams have been doing that for years.
The size of a game is not measured because it is being played on television. These days, everyone is on television. Even Ryan Seacrest.
The size of the game is not measured by the opponent. Yes, West Virginia is pretty darned good. Over the years, USF has played against some other good teams, too.
Nope. Tonight is the biggest game in the history of USF because, this time, the Bulls look pretty darned large themselves. It's the biggest game because it has the biggest stakes. And it's the biggest game because if USF manages to win, it shouldn't shock anyone.
This is how big games are measured. Both teams have to carry a certain weight. The rankings of both have to have reached a certain height. The possibilities of both have to have a certain reach. The stage has to be big, and the lights have to be bright, for both teams.
For the Bulls, tonight's game isn't just about what they can spoil.
It's about what they can attain.
No longer are the Bulls the dark horse team that surprised the nation by beating No. 7 West Virginia last year and No. 9 Louisville the year before. Yes, those victories were impressive, and yes, they said a lot about the promise of the USF program. On the other hand, there was a reason Bulls were a three-touchdown underdog in both of them.
No longer are the Bulls the upstart team that challenged Oklahoma and Alabama, Penn State and Miami before they were ready to compete against them. Except for Jim Leavitt, who was angry enough to snarl after losing every one of those, no one really thought the sides were close to even then, either.
Certainly, the Bulls are no longer the fresh-out-of-the-wrapper team that played against Troy and Illinois State and Western Kentucky, the bigger fish of a smaller pond then known as 1-AA. Nothing wrong with those wins, either. But, yeah, this is bigger.
For USF, so much has changed so fast - in particular, the expectations of a team that wants to be a major deal in a major conference. Which brings us back to tonight.
West Virginia is unbeaten, ranked fifth in the country and wants to win the Big East. USF is unbeaten, ranked 18th and wants to win the Big East. Yes, the Mountaineers deserve to be favored, but if the Bulls were to win, it wouldn't be like Buster Douglas upsetting Mike Tyson. It would be more like, say, Joe Frazier beating Muhammad Ali.
Also, it would be loud.
Say this much about tonight's game: It certainly sounds large. There has never been such a buzz for a USF game, what with the chatter and the students camping out for tickets and the rising prices of green face paint. In a week when the Bucs are 2-1 and the Rays are playing the Yankees and the Lightning is about to start a season, most of the talk has been about USF's defense against the high-octane offense of West Virginia. Tampa Bay has never had so much fun with a college game.
And now that we're here, how does USF win this game?
Item One: It has to run like the wind. That's the thing about the West Virginia offense: every series can turn into a highlight reel. The Bulls don't have to hold Pat White and Steve Slaton to a combined 60 yards, as they did last year, but they have to stop the big play. That means the Bulls have to play fast. A few turnovers wouldn't hurt, either.
Item Two: It has to block like the dickens. If the Bulls are going to win, they're going to have to play keepaway with the ball. That leads to the offensive line.
Item Three: Its star has to shine. Matt Grothe has to play well. He's still a sophomore, but already, Grothe has become the indispensable USF player. Put it this way: If he played in Oklahoma, onlookers would suggest he is tough enough to cut his own chicken.
Item Four: It has to make some big plays. The USF receivers need to cut down on the dropped passes.
If those things happen, yes, USF has a chance to win. If they don't, yes, USF fans have a right to be disappointed.
That's another way to measure a big game. If a team doesn't win, it is supposed to sting.
As a program, USF has grown up. It has risen so fast, so steadfastly, that there is a temptation to still think of it as a plucky little brother of a program. But that has never been Leavitt's view of his team, and it shouldn't be anyone else's, either.
When a team grows up, so too does its idea of a big game. This would be bigger than West Virginia a year ago, bigger than Louisville, bigger than Auburn.
Here in the big time, here in the Big East, it would be the biggest of them all.