Hey, it's no Troy State, but ...
So I'm standing behind the USF bench as the final seconds of Saturday's huge 24-19 upset of No. 7 West Virginia tick away, and I can't help but feel bad for senior quarterback Pat Julmiste.
Nobody, you see, would help Julmiste execute the requisite celebratory sport-drink cooler-dump on coach Jim Leavitt. Julmiste called to his brother, Josh -- who was pictured prominently in Sports Illustrated last year for his involvement in the previously largest cooler-dump in USF history -- but Josh wouldn't do it. Finally, he found an accessory in freshman Keeley Dorsey, who was enjoying holding his hand up to his ear, unable to hear much from a crowd of 52.790.
Here's why Julmiste is a smart senior: he lined up two coolers, just in case Leavitt dodged the first. But Julmiste and Dorsey executed the soaking to perfection on their first attempt, and the Bulls enjoyed the biggest victory in their 10-year history. As West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez made his opening comments to the press, the Bulls could be heard in the adjacent locker room, shouting "Pat Who?" again and again. (Ineffective as Pat White was Saturday, he will be back next season, if not the next, so that one could reappear in some headlines down the road).
Huge, huge win, even if it ultimately doesn't likely help USF's bowl status and likely takes millions of BCS dollars out of the Big East wallets. I'm all the more convinced they're going to the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham. I'll be at Dreamland if you need me. (Yum). With that, my 10 things, some bigger than others, from Saturday's enormous upset.
1. All you Don Beebe fans out there will like this. How big was it that Mike Jenkins ran down two would-be touchdowns from behind, allowing USF to save 11 points. First, Darius Reynaud -- that'd be WVU leading rusher Darius Reynaud -- gets loose on a reverse. Jenkins, initially blocked out at the line of scrimmage by Pat White, gets back and stops Reynaud at the 11. After three plays, West Virginia settles for a field goal. Fast forward to the third quarter, and White completes a pass to receiver Brandon Myles for a 29-yard gain, but Jenkins stops him at the 2. A formality, right? Steve Slaton fumbles inside the 1, and Jenkins helps keep seven points off the board. "That's what No. 4 does best," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "Every two or three games, he's going to save us a touchdown." And I agree with Leavitt -- Jenkins defended the first touchdown to Myles very well -- that was a perfect pass to a 6-3 receiver at the top of his leap.
2. Danny Verpaele hadn't started a game since UCF back in Sept. 14, displaced in the starting lineup by fellow sophomore Carlton Williams. USF's coaches opted to start Verpaele against West Virginia, believing they needed as much speed as possible on the field. Verpaele's biggest play was a hit, colliding with Slaton at the goal line and forcing a fumble that Ben Moffitt recovered at the 1. (Yes, the Bulls went three-and-out, punted to their own 28 and let West Virginia score four plays later, but nearly four minutes ticked off the clock, an important delay in shortening the game.
3. OK. West Virginia had the best red-zone offense in the Big East -- 33 touchdowns in 43 trips inside opponents' 20-yard line. All year, just three times they got inside the 20 and didn't at least get a field goal. They did that TWICE against USF. Twice, they got inside the 5 -- what's the name for that zone? -- and came away with nothing. So it's four trips inside the 12, six points. The fake field goal on the opening drive looked bad instantly, and given a few hours of hindsight, I think Rich Rodriguez might like a mulligan on that one.
4. Sure, West Virginia scored just four seconds into the second quarter, but how's this for a stat: when USF held the Mountaineers scoreless in the first, it was just the fourth quarter all season in which West Virginia's been shut out. For comparison, the Mountaineers had five quarters in which they scored 21 or more points. They hadn't scored less than 14 points in a first half; USF held them to six points. They'd scored less than 14 points in one half all season, and they did so in both halves against the Bulls. The best way to measure a strong defense is how it compares to a strong defense.
5. And having said that, USF did what it did with trouble at its absolute most important position. Patrick St. Louis wasn't 100 percent when he played, and on the first play of the second quarter, he sprained his right ankle. (He was on crutches on the sidelines with a boot on his ankle, but should likely be able to return for a bowl). Leavitt said Ben Moffitt was playing on "one good leg" after the thigh bruise he suffered last week. So Saturday's win says tons about Wally Burnham's ability to improvise, shifting Stephen Nicholas to weakside and Chris Robinson to strongside, then also using Jeremy Burnett like a linebacker in a modified nickel.
6. What a wild finish atop the Big East standings. Louisville beats West Virginia, and they're in control, then they lose to Rutgers. Rutgers is in control, then they lose to Cincinnati. And to Louisville's dismay, now Rutgers controls its destiny, because a Rutgers win at West Virginia next week -- there's another marquee nationally televised game in prime time for the Big East -- would give the Scarlet Knights the league crown. For an hour or so after the USF-WVU game, there was chaos in the press box, because Pittsburgh was hanging with Louisville, and a Louisville loss would have kept open the possibility of a three-way tie with two losses each. That would have scuttled a lot of the national street cred the conference has earned in the last month. The league isn't any worse than it was a month ago -- there's just better depth than anyone thought. That second tier of USF and Cincinnati showed it could knock off the supposed Big Three.
7. I was maybe 10 feet away when the interview took place, but watching Jim Leavitt at midfield on ESPN2, it's impressive to see the emotion from him -- he's fighting off tears as he says "I don't know" when asked how much the win means for USF. Leavitt doesn't do vulnerable often, so it's strong when you see it. "I love Tampa, St. Pete, the whole Bay area," he said, and you remember he's not just giving shout-outs to potential recruits; that where he's worked for the last decade and where he grew up. You want classic Leavitt? Asked 15 minutes later if this was USF's biggest win ever (which it clearly is), here's his first response: "There's been some big wins. You look at when we beat Troy State when we were a I-AA team, they were No. 1 in the country. I know that's not like this, but you have to understand how our program has evolved. Louisville game was big last year, but this was probably the biggest, because you won here and it's so hard to win here. It's hard to beat these guys anywhere."
8. Back to underappreciated plays: West Virginia scores a 44-yard touchdown with 5:16 left to pull within five points, and then USF's offense goes three-and-out, with Matt Grothe throwing a bad pass high of Ean Randolph. With 3:11 left, in comes Justin Teachey. HUGE kick -- over the returner's head, it rolls to a stop for a career-best 61-yard punt, with no return. On the 15-yard line! You kick a net 30-yard kick, West Virginia is on its 45, end zone in plain sight, confident with all kinds of momentum. Instead, it's their toughest task of the day -- none of WVU's drives went more than 65 yards. It won't go down as big as Delbert Alvarado's 56-yard field goal, but it's a huge special-teams play from Teachey, who has shown the rugby kick is more than just a gimmick.
9. Have to mention Matt Grothe and how amazingly efficient he's been this season. On Saturday, he overcomes two bad picks in his first nine throws -- again, he helps save seven points by tripping up Eric Wicks after his interception. Anyway, Grothe finished 22-for-30, and I did a chart for Sunday's paper showing how Grothe now has four of the five best games in USF history for completion percentage: only Marquel Blackwell vs. Southern Utah in 2001 is better than Grothe's games this year against Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and West Virginia. Only a freshman, and he's already got four of the top five games?
10. Bowl craziness: There are 64 openings in bowls, and already 73 teams that have six wins to be bowl-eligible. So nine teams are out of luck, and you can start with the non-BCS 6-6 teams: SMU, New Mexico, Wyoming, Kent State and Arkansas State; those two could be joined by 6-5 Louisiana-Lafayette or 6-5 Troy. That means two BCS 6-6 teams are out, so pick two from this group: FSU, Miami, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh, Arizona, Washington State, Alabama and 6-5 UCLA.
Is the Big East champ the league's only BCS team? I was thinking so, but now (in Leavitt voice) I'm unsure. Here's what has me wondering: West Virginia was No. 7 in this week's BCS rankings, and by virtue of WVU and Arkansas' losses this weekend, No. 9 Louisville will move up at least to that spot, if not one notch higher (ahead of Notre Dame). If Louisville's No. 6 in the BCS rankings after a convincing win next week (and the favorites win the league championships games), I think the Cardinals could get in with an at-large if Rutgers beats West Virginia to earn the Big East crown and its BCS berth. Rutgers and West Virginia can't get in with at-large berths -- our bowl scenarios for Sunday's paper have Louisville in the BCS, West Virginia in Jacksonville, Rutgers in Texas, USF in Birmingham, Cincy in Toronto and Pittsburgh scrapping for a non-affiliated bowl berth.
OK. I've got an early flight, so I'm calling it a night. By the way, as much as I miss "The Wire," I can't think of a show that's more difficult to follow if you just catch a random episode. Congrats to USF for being the top story at SI.com -- what we used to call "t-1" when I used to work there. Huge national exposure for the Bulls, and I'll have to check up on those two St. Petersburg kids who were thisclose to coming to USF but committed to West Virginia instead ...