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This is the one
By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 28, 2007
Sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe, last year's Big East Rookie of the Year and a threat to run or pass, will be one of the keys to a big victory for the Bulls.
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
West Virginia's two Heisman hopefuls, running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White, right, could use tonight's platform to elevate themselves against a nationally ranked USF defense, one that held them to a combined 60 rushing yards last season.
Former NFL linebacker Chris Spielman, calling tonight's USF-West Virginia showdown for ESPN2, didn't fully appreciate the newfound national awareness of Bulls football until this week. Home in Ohio, Spielman was taking his 11-year-old son, Noah, to school Wednesday morning when he asked: "Daddy, what game are you at this week?" Spielman said it was West Virginia at USF, and was about to start telling his son about the two schools when his son chimed in: "Oh, South Florida has a really good defensive end." Tonight's sellout is the biggest game in USF's short 11-year history, arguably the biggest college game ever played in Tampa. And yes, grade-schoolers in Ohio are excited about Bulls sophomore George Selvie, who leads the nation in sacks.
"When you have an 11-year-old Buckeye freak in Columbus, Ohio, talking about you, that's a real statement about how far their program has come," Spielman said.
As far as the Bulls (3-0) have come, earning their first win as a nationally ranked team last week, Jim Leavitt's team can take a huge leap forward tonight. A national spotlight is on Tampa, and a win tonight could elevate the Bulls from giant-killers to, well, giants.
"You've got to take advantage," Leavitt said this week. "Every play is that big. Everybody is going to play with emotion. They beat us two years ago, then we beat them last year. We just have to play."
The game has all the trappings of a huge college event. Students camped out in a tent city Sunday night to be part of a student section allotted at 12,501 seats, one more than West Virginia's so the Bulls can call it the biggest in the Big East.
The downtown Tampa skyline will be illuminated in green and gold lights tonight, Tampa mayor Pam Iorio will fly a Bulls flag from the city municipal building today, and a sold-out Raymond James Stadium will have 65,857 fans - nearly 17,000 more than any home game in Bulls history.
The game is huge on a national level, and success on ESPN's weeknight TV games helped elevate Rutgers to national darlings in their breakout season last year. ESPN's networks have never had a Friday night game pitting two teams ranked as high as USF (No. 18) and West Virginia (No. 5).
"I think it's the best matchup in college football so far this year," Spielman said. "The stakes are high for both schools, and everything is in play."
Indeed, if USF can pull off the upset, they would be in strong position to contend for a Big East championship and a lucrative spot in a coveted Bowl Championship Series bowl. Louisville, picked second behind West Virginia, has faltered with two losses, and USF would travel to face the league's other powerhouse, Rutgers, on another ESPN2 weeknight game in three weeks.
"We have to play relentless football," Selvie said. "This is a big year for us, we've played some great games already this season. This is just going to be another one."
Want subplots? How about West Virginia's two Heisman hopefuls, running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White, who could use tonight's platform to elevate themselves against a nationally ranked USF defense, one that held them to a combined 60 rushing yards last season.
How about longtime USF offensive assistants Rod Smith and Greg Frey, plucked from Leavitt's staff by West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez this spring? How about Rodriguez seeming to take some credit for USF's sellout, saying his team draws big crowds wherever it goes: "It's like the Yankees," he told a West Virginia newspaper, a parallel sure to strike a nerve with Tampa Bay sports fans.
Much of the Bulls' headlines this year have centered on three stellar sophomores: quarterback Matt Grothe, last year's Big East Rookie of the Year and a threat to run or pass; Selvie, who could easily set USF's single-season sack record tonight in just his fourth game of the year; and safety Nate Allen, who has had a hand in four turnovers on a ball-hawking defense.
But USF will lean heavily on its seniors tonight, especially on defense, where linebacker Ben Moffitt will be in charge of lining up the Bulls in position to stop West Virginia's big-play threat. Senior cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams must shut down West Virginia's speedy receivers while helping against the run.
Leavitt sprinted across the field during Monday's practice to remind Jenkins of last year's game, when he used his elite speed to run down two West Virginia players on long would-be touchdowns, essentially taking 11 points off the scoreboard after the Bulls defense forced a field goal and goal-line turnover.
Leavitt, very aware of West Virginia's unparalleled speed at key offensive positions, told Jenkins he might have to make those hustle plays again if the Bulls want another victory.
Spielman said USF's 24-17 win at West Virginia in November will give the Bulls confidence, but even more, will motivate the Mountaineers to avenge that loss.
"I think revenge plays a part," he said. "Anybody who tells you last year is last year is lying to you."
No. 18 USF vs. No. 5 West Virginia, 8 p.m., Raymond James Stadium, Tampa TV: ESPN2 Radio: 970-AM