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Close losses cost the Bulls a shot at a possible bowl bid

By PETE YOUNG
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 16, 2001

TAMPA -- Those who spend too much time dwelling in the past and pondering the future are courting disaster in the present.

But if South Florida took a moment to glance back at a couple of early games during this off week, it would be upset.

Two plays, one each in defeats at Memphis and Northern Illinois, could be what separates USF from a solid 8-3 season and a 10-1, bowl-bound campaign. Taking a leap of faith and assuming USF defeats surging Utah State (4-5, three-game win streak) in the season finale next weekend at Raymond James Stadium, the Bulls will finish 8-3 in their inaugural Division I-A season, but two of the three losses weren't decided until the final play.

In the season opener at Northern Illinois, the Bulls rallied to tie it in the second half but lost 20-17 on a final-play, 42-yard field goal. A holding penalty on USF's final possession cost the Bulls a shot at their own winning drive.

Against Memphis on Sept. 22, USF trailed 17-9 but drove to the Tigers 2. A pass into the end zone on the final play skipped off Huey Whittaker's fingertips.

Worse than coming up short on the last play was the feeling the Bulls were better than Memphis. After falling behind 17-0 early, the Bulls dominated the final 21/2 quarters but failed to punch it into the end zone. Their lone touchdown was scored by the defense.

"I've felt good about what our guys have done so far," coach Jim Leavitt said. "We lost a game at the beginning of the year to a last-second field goal. We lost to Memphis on the (2)-yard line, and we had a chance to win that game and we had plenty of opportunities in the second half. I was disappointed in the Utah game (a 52-21 loss), but other than that, we've really competed."

The Bulls have done better than compete, but they must wonder what might have been: How easily 8-3 could have been 10-1.

A bowl game always was a long shot because of the schedule.

The Bulls played three games against Division I-AA teams, and a minimum of six I-A wins are required to qualify for a bowl. Nonetheless, one or two wins were left on the table, and with them the opportunity to play in a bowl.

While South Florida realistically could be 10-1 and bowl bound, it also could be 10-1 and staying home for the holidays because it is a relatively unknown school playing a relatively weak independent schedule. In other words, bowl committees wouldn't be outbidding each other for the Bulls.

Then again, a 10-1 team in its first season of I-A football, its fifth season overall, makes a nice story around which to market a game, as does the no-huddle spread offense and quarterback Marquel Blackwell's passing statistics.

Also, USF's ranking has been climbing in the various power ratings thanks to its five-game winning streak and good results recently by some of the teams it has played, notably Utah and Pittsburgh.

To what bowl might USF have been invited? At least three reserve a berth for an at-large team: the Las Vegas Bowl (Dec. 20), Humanitarian Bowl (Dec. 28) and Silicon Valley Bowl (Dec. 31).

Last season those bowls featured a local team against an outsider. The Humanitarian Bowl, played in Boise, Idaho, matched 10-1 Boise State against 8-3 Texas-El Paso. A 10-1 USF team has to be more appealing than 8-3 UTEP, right?

Well, 10-1 Toledo was overlooked by the bowls last year.

One other thing to think about: Late December in Idaho isn't the bowl scenario most schools dream about. Waiting another year might be best for the Bulls after all.

USF graduates 10 players from this year's team (and none are named Marquel Blackwell, Kawika Mitchell or DeAndrew Rubin), so perhaps the bowl opportunity could come sooner than expected.

"I believe we're on the right path," Leavitt said. "I believe we're taking the right steps.

"We're not there, I think everybody knows that. I'm not that naive. But I think people would agree, South Florida's making moves in the right direction."

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