© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2001
TAMPA -- This time, believe him.
When South Florida coach Jim Leavitt says Houston -- 0-7 Houston -- is a legitimate threat to beat USF tonight at Raymond James Stadium, he's not spouting coachspeak.
This isn't Connecticut, Southern Utah or Liberty, three timid teams the Bulls have battered the past three weeks. Houston might seem like the ideal opponent for USF's homecoming -- winless and weak -- but it possesses a potent offense and talented players.
Then why are the Cougars 0-7? Well, they've played a tough schedule (their opponents have a .625 winning percentage, 10th-best in the nation) and they've undermined themselves.
A perfect example is Houston's 53-26 loss to Texas, one of the nation's most talented teams. The Cougars led 14-10 late in the first half, before:
1) Texas scored a touchdown eight seconds before halftime.
2) Houston flubbed the squib kickoff.
3) Texas kicked a field goal with no time on the clock for a 20-14 halftime lead and control en route to the easy victory.
The Cougars also botched a 28-17 fourth-quarter lead against Cincinnati. At home.
"They're a team that has a lot of good athletes. I'm sure they're pretty frustrated," Leavitt said. "You watch the Texas game, and Houston's moving the ball up and down the field. ... You see them move the ball on everybody.
"At times they play extremely well, and at times they don't. If they put it together, they can beat anybody in Conference USA."
The Bulls, an 11-point favorite, will try to keep the Cougars down in front of what is expected to be the biggest crowd of the season. Homecoming should assure a turnout near 30,000, and there is an additional buzz because it's the Bulls' first home game against a C-USA foe.
"It's exciting because of the future, for our community to understand who's in Conference USA," said Leavitt, whose team joins C-USA in 2003.
For Leavitt, there is an extra twist because he will be pitted against a former ally. Houston coach Dana Dimel and Leavitt coached together at Kansas State from 1990-95. Houston also has two former Bulls coaches on its staff: Frank Hernandez and Eric Wolford.
"They're going to know our people more than we know them," Leavitt said. "Is that going to be an advantage for them? Could be. But (Hernandez and Wolford) haven't been here (since 1999), and some things have changed."
The Bulls' biggest challenge will come on defense. USF allowed 407 passing yards in last week's 68-37 win against Liberty, and Houston's passing attack is ranked ninth in the nation. Also, running back Joffrey Reynolds has been on a tear, averaging 100 yards rushing in the past four games.
USF quarterback Marquel Blackwell guides an offense that is averaging 50 points in the three-game winning streak, and last week the Bulls broke loose on the ground. USF's 271 rushing yards against Liberty more than doubled its best this season, 126 against North Texas.
Redshirt freshman Clenton Crossley has established himself as the No. 1 running back, and he has 20 carries for 119 yards and six receptions for 64 yards in the past two games. He scored three touchdowns against Liberty.
IN MEMORY: Leavitt will present Patrick Payton's framed jersey to his mother, Deborah McCoy, five minutes before kickoff. Payton, a redshirt freshman defensive back from Miami Northwestern, died June 22 in Miami from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident the day before.