USF-McNeese: Where do I begin ...
I think Saturday's season opener against McNeese State is one of those games for which the ESPN Ticker almost lies to its viewers. You see USF 41, McNeese 10, and you have no idea what this game was like. Let me start in the middle of things -- in medias res, as they say -- so fans who missed the game can understand how bad things were for USF before they got so good.
It's the third quarter. USF is trailing McNeese State, a Division I-AA team, 10-7. The Bulls' starting quarterback is out with injury, their starting running back is also out. Two starters on the offensive line have had enough problems to go to the sideline. The offense has just connected on a 64-yard pass to the McNeese, only to fumble the handoff two plays later. The defense, playing well, forces a third-and-2 at midfield and gets an incomplete pass, but defensive end Treco Bellamy is flagged 15 yards for a late hit on the quarterback, setting up McNeese at the USF 33. Here's when it all starts to turn around.
The defense forces a stop, simple enough, and the offense gets a beautiful 47-yard touchdown pass from Matt Grothe to Marcus Edwards. The Bulls take a 14-10 lead, starting a wild run of 35 straight points. In the final quarter, the Bulls outgain the Cowboys 186-1. In about an hour realtime, it goes from a game USF might have actually lost to one where the Bulls covered the spread by two touchdowns.
-- It's 1:30 a.m., and I'm watching the game on TiVo. So much you can see when you can back up and watch things again. I wish I could pick up half as much watching a game live.
-- These schedules are made years ahead, and people will criticize teams for scheduling I-AA teams, but this game was exactly what a young Bulls team needed. Can you imagine if they'd opened with Penn State instead? This was like an NFL exhibition game, with running backs shuffled in and out, different combinations tried on the offensive line, lots of tweaking to evaluate so much young personnel. The Bulls had 22 players -- 22! -- make their USF debut, and nine players made their first start. All that youth, and only five players from the current freshman class played -- Ilia Petrov, Josh Smiley, Keeley Dorsey, Nate Allen and Delbert Alvarado. Was surprised that receiver Carlton Mitchell, the darling of the class just two weeks ago, didn't even dress. Curiously, neither did second-year players Jessie Hester or Antwane Cox. Other true freshmen who dressed but didn't play: linebackers Alonzo McQueen, guard Zach Herrmann and walk-on Jacob Sims.
-- McNeese's first drive, they get a fourth-and-8 on the USF 37. And they punt. Safe call, though it gets them a 12-yard punt. In their remaining 10 possessions, they had exactly one drive finish deeper in Bulls territory than the 37. USF's defense didn't give up much Saturday, considering McNeese's touchdown "drive" was zero yards.
-- Just so you sound cool in the office, so you feel like an insider, you've got to learn how to pronounce the new quarterback's name. It's "growth-eee." Sound the E on the end. The internal PA in the press box called him "Growth" early on Saturday -- not entirely inappropriate -- and the ESPN guys were calling him "Growth-ay" on the broadcast. And while we're on phonetics, Moise is "Moses." To make it easy on myself, I've been calling him Mo when I say his name out loud.
-- I thought USF's receivers had a great game. Made a lot of the tough catches, but really didn't miss many easy ones as they did a year ago. Leavitt said this was the most improved position from the end of the season to the end of spring, and Saturday seemed to show that, even with Jackie Chambers suspended. So many plays where USF's receivers -- and tight end Cedric Hill -- were able to find seams in coverage and separate themselves from defenders. And Marcus Edwards made a great catch in traffic for his 47-yard touchdown. The Bulls had four pass plays of 47 yards or more last season; they had two on Saturday.
-- Injuries? The one I know the least about is right tackle Marc Dile, who injured his left knee and needed to be helped off the field. The Bulls have very little depth at tackle, even with Thed Watson back in the mix and stepping in relief of an overmatched Jared Carnes early Saturday. If Dile's out, the Bulls have only redshirt freshman Danny Tolley as a solid backup. Quarterback Pat Julmiste has a thigh bruise, nothing that should keep him out next week, but I wonder if he'll still get to start after the showing by Matt Grothe. More about that later ... Moise Plancher said he wasn't sure about his knee, thought it might be a hyperextension, hoped he'd be able to play against Florida International.
-- Can't say enough about Ean Randolph. In his first NCAA game, he did almost everything. When Pat Julmiste threw a first-quarter interception, it was Randolph who tracked down a McNeese defender and tackled him. Add in a touchdown reception and an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown negated by a penalty, and it's a strong debut. Great story, and expect to see more from him.
-- A pet peeve of mine: Why do defensive players feel such a need to lateral the ball? You've already made a huge, momentum-shifting play. Don't ruin it. McNeese tried to lateral their interception and got penalized. And USF's Trae Williams, making a nice pick deep in USF territory, tried to lateral the ball ON HIS OWN 3-YARD LINE! He's about as far away from the correct end zone as a player can be, and he's trying to toss the ball to a teammate moving toward the end zone. USF was able to recover the loose ball, but had they not, I'd think there would be a lot of running in Williams' immediate future. Then again, Williams had a huge game, with so much penetration on USF's punt block he could have plucked the ball off the punter's foot. He also made a great open-field tackle to force an incompletion on a goal-line pass to McNeese's tight end in the second quarter.
-- This is crazy: in USF's first game without Andre Hall, with Ricky Ponton suspended and Moise Plancher playing only one series, the Bulls averaged 6.81 yards per carry. That's a better average than USF got in any game last season, with Hall. Yes, that figure picks up more than a yard because Keeley Dorsey went 52 yards on the final play of the game. And I'm not sure why the Bulls aren't taking a knee there, in terms of football courtesies. In USF's defense, the Bulls didn't attempt a pass in the final six minutes. And by the way, it's wild that USF gave five different running backs carries on Saturday -- in all of last year, only three Bulls running backs carried the ball. (And none of those three played in Saturday's game).
-- I feel bad for Ilia Petrov. He's a true freshman walk-on, as green as a college football player gets. And he got a low snap from Ryan Bordeau on the play that led to McNeese's only touchdown. Lesson for you young punters to be learned from this: If you're in your own end zone and get a bad snap early in a game, go down. It's not an easy call to make, especially on the fly, but the right move in that split second is to take the safety. OK, I'm done hindsighting 18-year-olds. Leavitt made the right call in replacing him with fellow freshman Delbert Alvarado, but I'd like to think Petrov gets another shot to prove himself as punter.
-- Offensive line. First, they gave up zero sacks. Second, of USF's 10 penalties, the offense was good for seven. Three holdings, three illegal formations (plus a fourth that cost USF a first-down because it offset a McNeese flag) and an illegal lineman downfield. One special-teams block in the back that negated a touchdown, and just two on the defense -- one pass interference, one late hit on Treco Bellamy.
-- From the Referee Karma Department, the Bulls got away with one on Colby Erskin's fumble. Replays clearly showed he fumbled into the end zone when he ran into teammate Marcus Edwards (who was trying to help him out with a block). Officials even reviewed, but held up the original call. Fortunate break for the Bulls, as instead of a touchback for McNeese, the Bulls had seven points on their next play.
-- OK. It's 2:30 a.m., and I've got to drive to Orlando in the morning. And I've written way too much already. I'll have more on Monday. You see the Big East went 6-1 so far this week? Rutgers' win against North Carolina and Pittsburgh's drubbing of Virginia are significant, in that last year, Louisville and West Virginia were the only Big East teams to post wins against teams from other BCS conferences. So now there's two in the first week ... OK, I really have to go now. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll answer 'em this week ...