September 29, 2007

Big East has a new bully in USF

MORE: No. 18 USF shuts down No. 5 West Virginia | Box score

TAMPA, Fla. USC. LSU. Oklahoma. Florida.

When the subject of undefeated teams with the potential to play for the BCS national championship was discussed, that quartet always got mentioned.

Fifth-ranked West Virginia rarely if ever was talked about.

Now you know why.

Instead, now it may be time to wonder if USF can be omitted from the discussion after the 18th-ranked Bulls pulled off their second major upset of season with a 21-13 victory over the Mountaineers on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium.

"That was a real big win for us, there's no question," said USF coach Jim Leavitt, drenched in a mixture of sweat and some kind of sports drink. "How big? I don't know about those things."

It was huge, coach. For at least one night, Tampa was a college football town.

A school-record crowd of 67,018 yelled itself hoarse while chanting, "USF, USF, USF." Students stormed the field even after the public-address announcer warned them not to. A crew held aluminum poles on the cross bars of the goal posts to ensure they would not be torn down. A brunette co-ed held up a sign reading "Human Grothe Hormone" in tribute to quarterback Matt Grothe. And with thousands among the crowd flashing a hand gesture like the "Hook 'Em Horns" sign popularized at Texas, Raymond James Stadium seemed a lot like Austin.

Well, maybe not. But give them time. After all, USF is just in its 11th season of football and its seventh in Division I-A.

You wouldn't know it, though. Not after the Bulls defense' forced six turnovers, knocked West Virginia quarterback Pat White out of the game and held big-play tailback Steve Slaton to just 54 yards on 13 carries.

Linebacker Ben Moffitt grabbed two interceptions returning one for the first touchdown of the game -- and a third slipped through his fingers in the fourth quarter. Free safety Nate Allen had an interception and recovered a fumble. Defensive end George Selvie, nose tackle Richard Clebert and cornerback Tyller Roberts had sacks.

Player of the game
USF linebacker Ben Moffitt had two interceptions, including one he returned 26 yards for a touchdown that staked the Bulls to a 7-0 lead. He also had eight tackles, with two going for losses, to lead the defense that contained West Virginia high-powered offense.
Key play
Punters are easy to overlook, but USF's Delbert Alvarado came through in a big way late in the fourth quarter. West Virginia, which had rallied to cut the lead to eight points, forced USF to punt from its 15 and figured to get good field position with less than three minutes remaining. Instead, Alvarado unleashed a 57-yard kick that left the Mountaineers needing 70 yards for a chance to tie the game. They could get no closer than USF's 40.
Best coaching move
It didn't seem like that big a deal at the time, but USF coach Jim Leavitt opted to go for it on fourth-and-inches form his 29 on the third play of the second half. Quarterback Matt Grothe sneaked for the first down and the Bulls went on to post a 13-play, 74-yard drive that ended with Jamar Taylor's 19-yard touchdown run. That TD provided the winning points.
Surprise performance
Freshman wide receiver Carlton Mitchell had only six catches in the first three games, but made a great effort to run down Grothe's long throw, then stay in bounds on a 55-yard touchdown pass that staked the Bulls to a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. It was his only catch of the game.
What this means for USF
The No. 18 Bulls now have two wins over nationally ranked teams (Auburn was No. 17 when USF won there three weeks ago). The Bulls have the inside track in the race for the Big East championship and will climb in the polls. They're getting closer to the top 10.
What this means for West Virginia
The Mountaineers aren't out of the Big East championship race by any means, but they need help. They also figure to fall out of the top 10, and the Heisman candidacies of quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton are all but over.
There were eight turnovers in the first half two fumbles and two interceptions by USF and three fumbles and an interception by West Virginia. Mitchell's 55-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was the first score of his career. Mitchell also runs track and holds USF's record in the 400 meters. Grothe's streak of 136 consecutive passes without an interception ended when WVU cornerback Ellis Lankster picked off one of his passes in the first quarter.
Yes, Grothe threw a 55-yard touchdown pass and true freshman tailback Jamar Taylor had a 19-yard touchdown run, but the defense that contained the nation's second-ranked offense was the reason for the victory.

"It was the execution of the kids, their effort and wanting to play hard and making plays," USF defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "Playing together as a team is the most important thing against West Virginia. You have to take care of your assignments, and then when you know your job is done, you can go help your buddy.

"They kept doing their job."

And West Virginia kept doing what well, West Virginia does in big games like this. As they did last season when they fumbled away a shot an unbeaten season in a loss to Louisville, then blew a chance at a BCS bid by losing at home to USF, the Mountaineers self-destructed when they had a chance to distinguish themselves.

The Mountaineers squandered so many opportunities. Among their six turnovers was an interception thrown from USF's 9 by backup quarterback Jarrett Brown, who came on late in the second quarter after White suffered a bruised quadriceps.

Another time, a snap over Brown's head on third-and-goal from USF's 3 forced the Mountaineers to settle for a field goal.

And when WVU reached USF's 40 in the final minute, a potential game-tying drive ended there with a sack and two incompletions.

"The kids played hard but badly executed, offensively," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "It's about as bad as you can play. I'm very disappointed because I thought we had a good week of practice.

"What did we have, six turnovers? I'm disappointed, but it's a long season and certainly the conference race is not over yet. We're just behind a little bit, but we'll get back to work on Sunday."

So will USF. The Bulls, who three weeks ago won at Auburn, now look like the team to beat in the Big East. Winning the league will require winning at No. 10 Rutgers on Oct. 18, beating No. 24 Cincinnati on Nov. 3 and getting past disappointing Louisville on Nov. 17.

But Leavitt wasn't looking past next week's game against Florida Atlantic.

"When we started this season, our goal was not necessarily to beat West Virginia but to be the Big East champions, so I won't let my guard down," Leavitt said. "We're only 1-0 in the Big East. You want me to take off my shirt and dance and hug and kiss, but I keep thinking about the mistakes we made."

That's OK. Everyone makes mistakes.

Failing to list USF among the country's best teams may prove to be one, too.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at

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