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Defense and a second-half comeback secure what coach Jim Leavitt called USF's "championship game.''


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 2000

College Football 2000 Preview
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Troy State running back Demontray Carter is stopped in the first quarter.
TAMPA -- It wasn't the main topic of discussion all week, but at one time or another it had to enter the mind of every South Florida player.

A chance for redemption.

Last season, the Bulls watched a 21-7 lead turn into a 41-24 loss on Troy State's home field.

Saturday night, the home-field advantage belonged to the Bulls.

Trailing 10-7 at halftime, the Bulls mounted a strong second-half comeback to earn a 20-10 win over the No. 1 Division I-AA team in the nation in front of 25,786 at Raymond James Stadium.

"I told our guys before the game that this was a national championship game," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. ... "How often does the No. 1 team in the nation come into Raymond James Stadium and into Tampa? That's a really unique situation to have and our guys really responded." For the first 30 minutes it was anybody's game, with both teams having the lead during the first half, neither by more than a touchdown.

But when Bill Gramatica kicked a 37-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the third quarter to give South Florida (3-2) a 17-10 lead, one could sense that this time the Bulls weren't going to let things slip away.

Not with its defense playing so tough that it held the Trojans (3-1) to 28 yards rushing in the third quarter -- 166 in the game. Not with the Bulls holding the No. 1 punt return team in I-AA to 4 yards on two returns.

Not with South Florida putting up 273 yards in the air to 55 for the Trojans. Not with USF generating 436 total yards of offense to 221. And not with the Bulls playing ball-control offense, keeping possession for nearly 34 of 60 minutes.

"Our defense played as good as they can play for the number of plays that they had to be out there, and that's our fault," Troy State coach Larry Blakeney said. "We didn't keep their defense on the field long enough to keep our defense off the field."

As has become the norm this season, the Bulls defense was stellar.

Troy State failed to get its offense going in the third quarter. The Trojans had three possessions, their longest for 2:29 and eight plays. One drive lasted just 29 seconds when quarterback Brock Nutter was intercepted by Anthony Henry on the first play.

Over and over, it was the defense putting pressure on Nutter, who came in with 803 passing yards in three games and eight touchdowns. Saturday, Nutter was 10-of-28 for 55 yards and one interception (by Anthony Henry).

South Florida took a 7-0 lead with a 16-yard pass from quarterback Marquel Blackwell to senior receiver Scott McCready with 48 seconds left in the first quarter. The score was set up by Rafael Williams' 18-yard run and a 29-yard pass from Blackwell to Hugh Smith.

"Like coach (Leavitt) said, it was our national championship game," said McCready, who had six catches for 78 yards. "We went in there thinking about that. ... No bowl game, no playoffs, this is it. This is the chance to show how good we are."

Because the Bulls are in a transition year from I-AA to I-A and have the full number of scholarships allowed Division I-A schools, they are not eligible for the I-AA playoffs or a bowl game.

The Trojans answered on their next possession when Demontray Carter ran for a 46-yard touchdown to tie the score with 14:14 left in the second quarter.

Leading 17-10, South Florida sealed its victory with a 42-yard field goal by Gramatica with 8:41 left in the game.

Troy State led 10-7 at halftime, taking advantage of 100 rushing yards in the first half and a USF mistake.

With just over eight minutes left in the second quarter and the Bulls at the Troy State 18-yard line, Blackwell fumbled.

Troy State responded with a six-minute drive that ended with a 44-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes.

But South Florida struck quickly and with authority in its opening possession of the second half.

The Bulls mounted a five-play, 72-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown run by Otis Dixon that gave USF a 14-10 lead.

With the touchdown, Dixon took sole possession of second place on the USF rushing touchdown list with 14.

Blackwell was 17-of-34 for 273 yards and also led the team in rushing with 17 carries for 113 yards, his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game. The Bulls' next closest rusher was Williams with 29 yards on 13 carries.

"I felt like I let the team down last week (at Baylor, with two fumbles)," Blackwell said. "I had to not think about that and go out and play well tonight."

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