TAMPA — This is the week for midterm exams at the University of South Florida, but the campus buzz isn't about that.
It's about that other test — the one tonight against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
It's a grudge match, a key game in the Big East and a matchup of undefeated teams that will have a nationwide TV audience. With the Bulls hoping to draw at least 60,000 people, USF launched an unprecedented one-game marketing blitz this week.
"The energy is there, and you can feel it all over the city," coach Jim Leavitt told about 400 fans at a sweltering noontime pep rally Wednesday on the Tampa campus. "The stadium needs to be full. We need to have that home-field advantage."
Leavitt, players, cheerleaders and others have hit the road to pump up fans, doing radio spots and visiting MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa Electric Co., Bright House Networks and the Shriners Hospital for Children, among others.
By Wednesday night, the team said it had distributed about 58,000 tickets for tonight's game.
USF's average home game attendance was 53,160 in 2007 and 49,690 in 2008. So far this year, against Wofford and Charleston Southern, it has averaged 39,579. The Bulls' home game record is 67,012 for the West Virginia game in 2007.
Planning for this week's ticket drive began immediately after USF beat Syracuse on Oct. 3.
"Literally, it started at 4 p.m. that day," said Courtney Pratt, USF Athletics' student marketing coordinator.
USF Athletics staff and student government officials had talked over the summer about a pep rally — not a Bulls tradition — but planning for Wednesday's event began in earnest about a week and a half ago.
"Hopefully, we'll start doing it every year," student body vice president Bruno Portigliatti said.
With ESPN broadcasting the game on a Thursday, and with few other games to watch, USF can expect a big TV audience.
But at Wednesday's pep rally outside the Marshall Student Center, the talk wasn't about national exposure. It was about a smackdown with a conference rival that has defeated USF three times in a row.
"If we win this game, we have a shot at winning the Big East," Portigliatti said.
The university's student ticket block is normally 12,501, the largest in the Big East, USF officials say. Those tickets, free for students, were snapped up by Tuesday afternoon, so the university began selling students tickets for $10 each.
"There are a lot of people e-mailing me: 'I've never gone to a game.' 'How do I do it?' 'How do I get a ticket?' '' said graduate business student Ken Getty, the student government's director of student life and traditions.
By 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, a record 13,710 students had signed up for tickets. Officials were hoping for 14,000 students at kickoff.
"I was really worried about not getting a ticket for this game, but I did get one," said USF junior Sheika Snow, 21, an international business student who went to the pep rally with a green "USF" painted on her cheek.
For Stuart Silverman, the longtime dean of USF's Honors College, seeing crowds of pumped-up students in green and gold is a sign of the university's growth.
It's not something you would have seen 15 or 20 years ago, he said. USF didn't offer the same campus experience then.
"You just look around, and it's a different place," Silverman said. "Kids are here to take courses. But they're also here for all the other things that go with being a big-time school."
Times photo editor Stefanie Boyar contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.