'A history game': Bulls take down No. 5 W. Va.
TAMPA – Biggest game in USF history? Make that the biggest win in Bulls history.
Playing to the program’s first sellout crowd and a national TV audience, the No. 18 Bulls got a dominating defensive effort, forcing six turnovers in a convincing 21-13 win against No. 5 West Virginia.
“This is a history game. We made history tonight,” said safety Nate Allen, who had an interception and fumble recovery. “There’s no feeling like it. We’re just going to take it in.”
A record crowd of 67,018 at Raymond James Stadium spilled onto the field in celebration after the Bulls held off an offense that had averaged 47 points per game coming in. Senior linebacker Ben Moffitt led the way, returning one interception for the game’s first touchdown and picking off another pass in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense played as good as you can play,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “You’ve got to give (the defensive coaches) all the credit; they’re the ones that do it.”
It’s the second year in a row the Bulls (4-0, 1-0) have knocked West Virginia (4-1, 0-1) out of the top 10, but this win was bigger than last year’s upset in Morgantown.
Friday’s victory makes USF a team to beat in the Big East and sets up the Bulls' next Big East game, in three weeks at undefeated Rutgers, as another showdown of the league’s top contenders. Leavitt, stubbornly focused, won’t talk about anything but next week’s game at Florida Atlantic.
“Our goal is to win a Big East championship, and that’s very difficult to do. I won’t let my guard down,” Leavitt said. “I know you want me to take off my shirt and hug and kiss and all that. I feel good like that, but I’m serious about what I’m saying.”
It’s the highest ranked opponent the Bulls have ever beaten, and their third win against a ranked team in their last six games.
West Virginia came in with two Heisman Trophy candidates, but USF’s defense might have ended those campaigns. Quarterback Pat White left without his team scoring a point, suffering a thigh injury late in the first half, and running back Steve Slaton’s unimpressive 54 yards were trumped by two fumbles.
As was the case three weeks ago in an upset win at Auburn, the Bulls won despite numerous mistakes on offense. USF turned the ball over four times in West Virginia territory in the first half alone and missing on a 47-yard field goal attempt.
They scored when they needed to, first on a 55-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Grothe to freshman Carlton Mitchell for a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. Up 14-3 at the half, USF came out impressively, marching 74 yards without completing a pass and scoring on a 20-yard run by freshman Jamar Taylor.
“We told them at halftime, ‘The first drive of second half is going to be the most important drive of your career,’” offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said. “We drove it down and scored.”
West Virginia moved the ball well in the third quarter, but saw a promising drive end with no points as backup quarterback Jarrett Brown was intercepted in the end zone by safety Nate Allen, allowing the Bulls to keep a 21-6 lead.
After West Virginia scored a touchdown with 5:45 to play, the Bulls needed one last stop. Brown scrambled to convert a fourth-and-11, but USF got a key sack from defensive end George Selvie, and Brown's last pass fell incomplete, allowing the Bulls to run out the clock and dump a cooler on defensive coordinator Wally Burnham.
The crowd broke the attendance record set more than a decade ago in USF’s first-ever game, an 80-3 win against Kentucky Wesleyan that had drawn 49,212 to Tampa Stadium in 1997.
USF even found motivation in the crowd, as West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez had taken some credit for the sellout this week, saying his team was “like the Yankees,” drawing big crowds on the road.
“Yankees no more,” backup kicker Morgan Riley said in the celebration after the game. “The Yankees came to Tampa and the D-Rays got ‘em tonight.”
Said Grothe: “Last time I checked, the Yankees haven’t won a World Series in a while.”