MIAMI — For the past two years, Florida International has been generally regarded as the worst team in Division I-A football, losing 25 of 26 games entering Saturday's game with No. 12 USF.
The Bulls, 28-point favorites coming in, were almost as bad Saturday night, struggling near the goal line and giving up another fourth-quarter collapse that had the Panthers attempting an onside kick in the final minute. The Bulls hung on for a 17-9 win, but coach Jim Leavitt wasn't excited about much.
"We played about as bad as we can play. I really don't see how we could play worse," Leavitt said. "We won a ballgame, but we're not real happy about it. It was pretty disgusting. … We made every mistake you could possibly make."
After seeing 14-point fourth-quarter leads disappear in wins against Central Florida and Kansas, the Bulls nearly did it again. Leading 17-0 with three minutes to play, USF allowed a punt to be downed on the 2-yard line, and after two false starts, saw running back Mike Ford tackled in the end zone for a safety.
The defense, having held FIU to 79 yards in three scoreless quarters, then gave up a 61-yard pass to the 2-yard line, setting up Julian Reams' 1-yard touchdown run with 53 seconds left. FIU's onside kick was recovered by Nate Allen to thwart the rally.
"We just messed around, the whole game," Leavitt said. "There's no excuses. If we want to be a real good team, we need to find a way to change. … To play a team like this and not just move through it, it's embarrassing, to be honest with you."
The scoreboard was never as frightening as what USF faced in the third quarter, when linebacker Brouce Mompremier collided with a teammate and lay motionless at midfield.
After several minutes, he was taken off the field in an ambulance and taken by helicopter to a local hospital, where he was in stable condition, with full movement in his arms and legs.
On a night when FIU's fans didn't have much to cheer about, awkwardly half-filling FIU Stadium for its grand opening, they found a certain joy in having given the Bulls a scare.
"Overrated," the fans chanted, and USF's players said they have to play better to earn their national ranking.
"We moved the ball well all night, but when we got into the red zone where it mattered, we couldn't punch it in," said Bulls quarterback Matt Grothe, who went 14-for-22 for 136 yards after back-to-back 300-yard efforts in his previous two games. "I thought we were (ready), but apparently not."
USF's offense got just 10 points from its first four trips inside the FIU 10-yard line, with a field goal blocked and Grothe stopped on fourth down from the 1.
"A lot of the mistakes we made were self-inflicted wounds," offensive tackle Ryan Schmidt said. "We were inside the 10-yard line (four) times and only scored twice, one a field goal? That's just not acceptable for us. We're much better than that. We didn't even get it from the 1-foot line. We got stopped. We've got four senior guys (on the line) so that's not what we're looking for."
In the first half, USF outgained FIU 216-40, but the Panthers outgained the Bulls 149-102 in the second half. The Bulls' defense, while stingy, forced just one turnover, giving them three takeaways in four games, among the fewest in the nation.
So while the Bulls are pleased to be 4-0, there's little else to be pleased about, especially with a road trip ahead to North Carolina State, which upset No. 15 East Carolina in overtime Saturday afternoon.
"It's a wake-up call," Schmidt said. "It's a good thing we got a W, but it's not something we want to do every week."