TORONTO — Tied 3-3 with Northern Illinois at halftime, with his offense struggling to find itself, USF coach Jim Leavitt told his team he was putting the ball in the hands of junior running back Mike Ford.
Ford, who had just one carry in Saturday's first half, took over the International Bowl, finishing with 207 yards, a career high, a USF bowl record and the most for the Bulls in any game in more than five years. And the defense dominated from start to finish in a 27-3 victory in the Rogers Centre.
"Mike Ford was the spark," said quarterback B.J. Daniels, who threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns. "He has the MVP trophy, and he should. He deserves it. We're real proud of it. The momentum and big plays he had, that definitely gave our offense a spark, as well as our team."
After the game, Ford held the cherry-wood MVP trophy in his right hand and pointed to the Rogers Centre roof. "This is for you, Pops," he said. His father, Robert, died in July 2007, and Ford compared the challenge of carrying his team to what he has had to do for his family.
"It reminded me of my Pops," said Ford, a Sarasota native who had 'SOTA and his area code, 941, on his eye black as a tribute to his hometown. "My family's weight was on my shoulders, and everybody was looking to me to carry the family. Coach said that, it was like, 'Let's play South Florida football' and do what I do."
Asked about a 36-yard run on the second play of the second half that foreshadowed Ford's dominant play, Leavitt admitted he had trouble distinguishing one big run from another.
"Was that the one where he ran smack-dab over that guy?" Leavitt said. "That poor soul, Mike ran right through him. I thought, 'My goodness, that was a pretty good run.' Mike's so big and strong, and he has good feet. Everybody knows Mike's an awfully good running back. It was fun to see him run like that today."
Ford, a profilic runner and coveted recruit out of high school, had disappeared at times this season, totaling 58 yards in a six-game stretch this season. He entered the game with 243 yards all season and hadn't had a 100-yard game since November 2007. Then he rushed for 104 yards in the third quarter alone Saturday.
"We figured, 'Let's give it to the running backs, see if we can't pound it,' " running backs coach Carl Franks said. "The O-line usually likes that, the running backs like that, and Mike just got on a roll, so he stayed in the game. He's a big, strong guy that can break a lot of tackles."
The offensive line, missing its two most experienced starters because of injury, turned things around in the second half after USF had minus-3 rushing yards in the first half.
"We finally got it together, and Mike started breaking loose," center Sampson Genus said. "It's great to see the back of the running back's jersey. It makes it a lot easier."
And if USF's offense didn't show up until the second half — Daniels threw two touchdown passes to receiver A.J. Love — the defense was there from the start, holding an NIU team that had scored at least 19 points in every game to a second-quarter field goal. The Bulls were especially tough on third down, holding the Huskies to three conversions in 13 attempts.
"We just kept playing and played hard," USF defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "They did some nice things, but if you hold someone to three points, I don't care who it is, it's a good day in Division I football."
The Mid-American Conference lost its 14th straight bowl game, and the Big East improved to 4-0 in Toronto, with USF improving to 3-2 after playing in its fifth straight bowl.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Read his blog at blogs. tampabay.com/usf and follow him at twitter.com/gregauman.