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Bulls offense climbs hill, tops Western Kentucky

By ANTONYA ENGLISH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


TAMPA -- All week leading up to South Florida's game against Western Kentucky, USF coach Jim Leavitt talked about how difficult the Hilltoppers' option offense would be to keep in check.

He neglected to mention how tough his own offense might be.

Quarterback Marquel Blackwell had a career game Saturday night and the offense generated 449 yards en route to a 30-24 victory.

A homecoming crowd of 31,104 watched South Florida (6-3) defeat the No. 6 team in Division I-AA. It was the third-largest crowd to attend a USF game at Raymond James Stadium.

With the victory, South Florida guaranteed itself a winning season for the third consecutive year and evened the series with Western Kentucky (8-1) at two. The Bulls have won three of their last five games against ranked Division I-AA teams.

"This was a very big win, no question," Leavitt said. "I told our offense all week long we were going to have to answer back (when WKU scored) and what a great job they did."

There have been times this season when the Bulls relied heavily on their defense to win. Saturday night, the offense took care of itself. Blackwell was 27-for-39 for 360 yards.

But when necessary, the defense was there to lend a hand, most importantly with big-time plays in the fourth quarter to help seal the victory.

Leading 30-21, South Florida strong safety Joe Morgan forced Western Kentucky quarterback Jason Johnson to fumble as he was diving into the end zone with six minutes left. Morgan also recovered the ball.

Western Kentucky had pulled within 27-21 with 12:55 left on a 3-yard run by DeWayne Gallishaw.

On USF's next possession, Bill Gramatica kicked a 27-yard field goal with 9:22 left for a 30-21 lead.

Western Kentucky scored once more -- a 34-yard field goal by Peter Martinez with 2:41 left. The Hilltoppers had one last shot, but the USF defense hung tough and time ran out on WKU's final drive.

South Florida's offense struck first -- and quickly.

On the Bulls' second play of the game, Blackwell threw a perfect pass to senior Scott McCready as he ran across the middle for a 40-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The drive covered 56 yards in 32 seconds.

But the lead would be short-lived, thanks to a couple of mistakes by the Bulls.

On its next possession, South Florida committed a 10-yard penalty (blocking in the back) and Rafael Williams fumbled on the next play after catching a pass, giving the Hilltoppers a first down on the USF 40-yard line.

Three plays later, Johnson scampered 29 yards for a touchdown to tie the score.

On its next possession, Western Kentucky mounted a 12-play drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by fullback Kevin Crisp. The Hilltoppers led 14-7 with 18 seconds left in the first quarter.

South Florida found itself reeling from two Western Kentucky scores within a four-minute span.

That's when the Bulls started to rally. The comeback was led by the passing game -- sharp one from Blackwell to McCready, Hugh Smith, DeAndrew Rubin, Chris Iskra, Richard Guerrero and Charlie Jackson. There were short out patterns and long passes. And all seemed to be working.

"Everybody is looking for me to come through, but it wasn't just me tonight, it was everybody," Blackwell said.

Western Kentucky had 15 passing yards in the first half, but managed 119 yards on 26 carries. The Hilltoppers finished with 398 total yards, including 265 rushing yards.

"We maybe should have played a little better defense," Leavitt said. "But when you're playing a team that's going to do so many things, it's hard to get ready in three days."

South Florida trailed 14-10 when the Bulls put together their most dramatic drive of the game. It went 42 yards in 10 plays and included two crucial fourth-and-2 conversions -- passes for 6 and 11 yards.

The Bulls took a 17-14 lead on a 4-yard run by Blackwell with 5:33 left in the second quarter. South Florida capped the quarter with Blackwell's 1-yard touchdown run with 56 seconds left to give the Bulls a 24-14 lead. They never trailed again.

"I'm really proud of this football team," Leavitt said. "They battled and fought. This is the third I-AA football team we've played this season, and we've come out on top."

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