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Bad start, bad finish for Bulls

USF trails 31-3 early in losing 45-9 to Middle Tennessee State.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- It started with a missed field goal six minutes into the game and went downhill from there.

College Football 2000 Preview
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Dwone Hicks scores on a 28-year catch, breaking the tackle of USF's Roy Manns.
The South Florida football team, fresh off three consecutive victories, came in still carrying the hope of going undefeated in its final five games of the season.

That hope ended in stunning fashion Saturday afternoon when the Bulls had arguably one of their worst outings of the season.

Dismantling what has been a fairly solid defense, Middle Tennessee State (5-5) scored on six of its first eight possessions and led 31-3 at halftime en route to a 45-9 win over South Florida (6-4) in front of 12,147 at Floyd Stadium.

Middle Tennessee State gained 420 yards of offense using a well-balanced attack -- 188 yards on the ground and 232 on the passing of junior quarterback Wes Counts. The Blue Raiders kept the Bulls scrambling the entire game.

South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said he wasn't sure why the Bulls struggled, but took full responsibility for their performance.

"The biggest thing is it starts with me," Leavitt said. "Somewhere in the week I just didn't get our team ready. I don't want to take anything away from Middle Tennessee, but I think we can play better. ... Middle Tennessee is a good team with a lot of momentum, but tonight we struggled everywhere."

The Blue Raiders scored on four of their first five possessions Saturday to set the tone for a long day. "We didn't come ready to play at all," USF sophomore linebacker Kawika Mitchell said. "I'm not really sure what the reason is because we practiced hard all week. But the things we tried to run and execute just didn't work. I don't know if it was the weather, the (artificial) turf or what."

South Florida put together a solid opening drive, going 10 plays to the MTSU 29-yard line, before Bill Gramatica missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt.

The game was delayed about five minutes three plays into that drive because the stadium scoreboard clock malfunctioned.

Middle Tennessee State struck back quickly with a four-play, 71-yard drive. Running back Dwone Hicks' 47-yard touchdown run with 8:31 left in the first quarter.

On the ensuing kickoff, DeAndrew Rubin ignited the Bulls with a 77-yard return that gave the them a first down on the Blue Raiders 16-yard line.

But three failed pass plays later, the Bulls settled for a 33-yard field goal by Gramatica.

MTSU's four-point lead was extended less than three minutes later.

On its next possession, MTSU put together a six-play, 61-yard drive that ended with a 27-yard pass from Counts to Hicks for a 14-3 lead.

On the Bulls' next possession, quarterback Marquel Blackwell threw an interception that led to a 41-yard field goal by Brian Kelly with 2:18 left in the first quarter and a 17-3 lead.

"They did a good job of keeping the pressure on," said Blackwell, 23-for-39 for 184 yards. "We came out flat and they jumped on us."

"I think the big interception early set the tone," MTSU coach Andy McCollum said.

After its defense managed to keep Middle Tennessee State from scoring for the first time in the game, a USF mistake negated that effort. After a five-play drive that resulted in a punt, South Florida's Anthony Henry bobbled the catch, and the ball was recovered by MTSU, giving the Blue Raiders first down on South Florida's 16-yard line.

Two plays later, Counts hooked up with Hicks for his second touchdown pass of the day, a 15-yarder, that gave the Blue Raiders a 24-3 lead with 13:13 left in the second quarter.

"We made too many mistakes and we didn't execute," Leavitt said. "Ten points came off an interception and a fumble.'

South Florida's defense had no answer for the Blue Raiders offense, ranked 18th in the nation at 432.1 yards a game coming in. The Bulls, who amassed 297 yards of offense (91 rushing), also were hurt by 14 penalties for 146 yards, a season worst.

With 2:38 left in the first half, Middle Tennessee State took a 31-3 lead when Counts threw a 9-yard pass to Rondell Newson.

The Blue Raiders scored twice more: A 25-yard pass from Counts to Newson with 11:27 left in the third quarter and a 1-yard run by Hicks with 6:05 left in the game.

South Florida scored its only touchdown on a 4-yard run by Blackwell with 12:06 left.

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