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Big-time Bulls

Pittsburgh was supposed to administer the biggest hurting in USF's first I-A season. But USF attacks immediately and comes away a stunning 35-26 winner.

By PETE YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


College Football 2000 Preview
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
A touchdown by Brian Fisher, left, gave USF a 28-7 lead.
PITTSBURGH -- They were overmatched and outclassed. The execution was too good, the athleticism too much. The offense was too sleek, the defense too strong.

Yep, neophyte South Florida was just too good for tradition-laden Pittsburgh. The upstart Bulls stunned the Panthers on Saturday at sparkling new Heinz Field, 35-26.

The result would seem almost inexplicable. Fledgling USF, in its first season of Division I-A football and just fifth overall, was a 22-point underdog.

Yet the shocking upset was no fluke. The Bulls seized command from the outset and controlled all aspects of the game until Pittsburgh (1-1) came back in a hair-raising fourth quarter.

USF (1-1) hung on for its biggest win ever and gave the 39,542 in attendance and television audience on Fox Sports Net something to remember it by.

"I hope they say, 'There's a team rising out of the city of Tampa that's not bad,' " USF coach Jim Leavitt said when asked what he hoped observers would think. "You're not going to gain respect until you beat people.

"I just have peace inside. I guess I have contentment for how we played."

Pittsburgh's veteran defense never solved the Bulls' relentless no-huddle, shotgun, spread attack, which tallied 443 yards in a whopping 97 plays. USF's 27 first downs tied a school record.

Behind a record-setting day from quarterback Marquel Blackwell (37 of 65, 343 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception), the Bulls sprinted to a 28-7 lead in the middle of the third quarter before Pittsburgh rallied.

Two key plays in the fourth quarter made the difference.

The first was a missed extra point after Pittsburgh had trimmed the lead to 28-20. It forced the Panthers to go for the two-point conversion after they scored again with 7:39 remaining to make it 28-26. However, USF cornerback Bernard Brown knocked down David Priestley's two-point pass attempt to R.J. English, and the Bulls stayed in front. Priestley was 28 of 45 for 354 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. The second key play came with 6:53 remaining and USF desperately protecting the two-point lead. On third and 4 from the USF 44, Blackwell connected with DeAndrew Rubin on a slant, and Rubin juked his way 53 yards to the Pittsburgh 3-yard line.

The Bulls needed six plays from there, plus help from two pass interference calls on 6-foot-5 receiver Huey Whittaker, to punch in the clinching touchdown. An interception by J.R. Reed and forced fumble by Chris Daley in the final minutes finished things off.

Rubin caught 10 of his school-record 11 passes and two touchdowns in the first half, when USF did just about everything right.

The woes against the run last week in the loss at Northern Illinois? Ancient history. Tackles Greg Walls and Tchecoy Blount wreaked havoc in the interior as the Bulls allowed just 12 rushing yards.

The Panthers, playing without standout wide receiver Antonio Bryant, the 2000 Biletnikoff Award winner, could muster almost nothing against a swarming USF defense in the first half. However, a 56-yard touchdown reception by Roosevelt Bynes with less than a minute to go before halftime brought Pittsburgh within 14-7.

USF marched to touchdowns on its second and third possessions of the game, picking apart the defense with short passes and intermittent runs as the rapid-fire, no-huddle offense kept the tempo piping.

USF went 54 yards on 10 plays for a 7-0 lead, culminating the drive with a 14-yard touchdown from Blackwell to Rubin. Its next possession was more impressive -- 73 yards on 14 plays -- and ended in a 15-yard scoring strike to Rubin.

The Bulls third-down efficiency was remarkable. Last week USF failed on 13 of 15 third-down attempts. Saturday the Bulls converted on 10 of 22.

After Blackwell touchdown passes to Hugh Smith (13 yards) and Brian Fisher (22 yards) extended USF's lead to 28-7 in the third quarter, Pittsburgh got its passing game going and clawed back into it. But they couldn't complete the comeback.

To a man, the Bulls players expressed satisfaction, but not surprise, about the historic upset.

"This is something we planned on doing from the (beginning)," strong safety Joe Morgan said.

"We're making another step up," free safety J.R. Reed said. "Another step ahead toward the big time."

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