USF Freshmen Quarterbacks Duel At Spring Game

USF’s annual spring football game was all about first impressions this year, as the split squads of green and white faced off for the first action on the gridiron of 2009. On one hand, the trio of new coaches – offensive coordinator Mike Canales, defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, and co-defensive coordinator David Blackwell – had a lot to prove, as well as the Bulls’ incoming class of talented recruits.

On Saturday, neither group disappointed the fans at Raymond James Stadium.

“That was as exciting a spring game as maybe you will ever see,” USF head coach Jim Leavitt said after the game.

Although true, Leavitt’s words were an understatement in describing the actual events that unfolded during the four quarters on the field. Led by red-shirt freshman quarterbacks B.J. Daniels and Evan Landi, the green and white teams battled each other literally until the end. On the final play, with no time remaining on the clock and after Landi connected with Colby Erskin to bring the white squad within one, Landi’s two-point conversion pass attempt sailed just inches over the head of receiver Theo Wilson, allowing the green team to barely escape with a 21-20 win.

As both young arms put on a show, the game did not appear to be about green versus white as much as it was a duel for the backup quarterback role to returning senior Matt Grothe. Come August, Leavitt might have a tough decision to make, as both Daniels and Landi played phenomenally. The pair of quarterbacks scored more points in the first half than the past two spring games combined. Individually, Daniels completed 11 of 19 passes, good for 181 yards and two touchdowns, despite throwing one interception. Landi went 20 for 30 with 189 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.

Daniels put the green team on top in the first quarter, ironically not with his arm, but with his legs instead. He scampered in the end zone for a one-yard run, a score set up by his very own 55-yard completion to receiver Dontavia Bogan on the previous play. Before the green team could end the first quarter with a seven-point lead, Evan Landi tied the score with what was a mirror image of Daniels’ pass earlier in the period: a 55-yard bomb right into the hands of fellow red-shirt freshman Daniel Bryant.

The first quarter proved to be an indication of how the remainder of the game would play out: back and forth scoring that rendered the game a clinic on how to score points.

“This was my third spring game and this definitely was the best one yet,” said USF student Jeremy McLeod. “It was high scoring, exciting, back and forth touchdowns, pretty much what everyone wants to see when they come to a football game.”

After Daniels put the green squad up in the second quarter with a 20-yard touchdown pass, his next throw on the next possession landed into the hands of the white team’s cornerback back Carlton Mitchell, who took it to the house 95 yards to tie the game at 14. Even with an aerial assault of offense from the two freshman quarterbacks, the defense of both the green and white teams stepped up when it mattered most. Senior linebacker Chris Robinson picked off Landi’s pass, which led to the go-ahead winning touchdown capped off by a 46-yard pass from Daniels to Bogan. Robinson’s pick was the last of four total turnovers forced by the defense on the night.

Changes on the Horizon for USF Football

The last two USF football seasons have been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride, both in an emotional and logistical sense. The Bulls and their fans have experienced utter jubilation because of wins over Auburn and West Virginia in 2007 that put the program in the national spotlight for the first time in its short history. They have also have endured the other end, losing five out of their last seven games after posting a flawless 5-0 record in 2008 – a season that was supposed to top the previous year’s early success that characterized not only progress, but promise for the future.

Although the 2009 season is still months away, it already possesses the feel that it might not be so different from the past.  Even now, it has already run the full range of emotions that Bulls fans know so well.

On one hand, National Signing Day two weeks ago brought in the most highly recruited and talented group of high-school prospects set to suit up and take the field donning green and gold. After a pair of disappointing years, USF’s coaching staff, its fans and the players themselves feel optimistic that the added depth will help overcome the team’s recent shortcomings.

The new class of recruits should eliminate most doubt regarding the Bulls’ skill level, but incidents during the past week moved the focus away from players and onto the coaching staff. Due to a series of recent career-advancement opportunities, head-coach Jim Leavitt is now forced to install a new style of recruiting that extends beyond those on the field. In the upcoming months, he will be looking for talent off of it, as associate head-coach and defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, along with offensive coordinator Greg Gregory and defensive backs coach Troy Douglas, departed from campus to seek employment at three other universities.

On Feb. 17, the university announced Burnham had left USF after taking the defensive coordinator position at Iowa State where he will coach alongside his youngest son. Under Burnham’s guidance, USF has ranked in the top-30 in total defense in six of the last seven seasons, including a No. 10 ranking in 2008. Burnham completed his ninth season with USF this past year and spent eight of those as defensive coordinator before being promoted to associate head coach prior to the 2007 season.

Prior to Burnham’s acceptance of the Iowa State coaching vacancy, offensive coordinator Greg Gregory left USF to pursue the same position at South Alabama. According to USF’s official athletics Web site, gousfbulls.com, no considerations have been made just yet, but changes to the offensive coaching staff will come at a later date.

Defensive backs coach Troy Douglas has also followed the lead of his fellow co-workers, as he has taken over the same position at the University of North Carolina. Douglas’ departure after three years with the Bulls was the third USF assistant coach to assume a position at a different school in less than a week.

Amidst the absence of coordinators and coaches roaming the sidelines on Saturdays, current University of Nebraska linebackers coach Mike Ekeler is the front-runner for the defensive coordinator position. Ekeler, who served as a player under Jim Leavitt at Kansas State from 1991-1994, interviewed this past Saturday for the job. Ekeler, prior to his stint with the Cornhuskers, has previously coached some of the nation’s top defenses in the past six years at Oklahoma and LSU. USF is also considering University of Cincinnati defensive coordinator Joe Tresey for the opening.

It is imperative that Leavitt works quickly, as all three of the coaching gaps have yet to be filled just three weeks before spring practices start. Moreover, the newly-hired coaches will be essential pieces to the Bulls’ success this year, as the team’s schedule is one of the most impressive in the program’s history. USF will face traditional conference foes in Louisville, West Virginia and Cincinnati – three teams in which the Bulls have collectively struggled against over the past few years. The non-conference schedule is no piece of cake either, as USF will travel on the road to face Florida State before hosting another in-state rival, the Miami Hurricanes, over the Thanksgiving weekend at Raymond James Stadium.

Forget Pittsburgh, Tampa Wins Big In Super Bowl

There’s no doubt that fans who traveled to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII put their money to good use, as they were treated with a football game that lived up to its title as being truly “super.” In fact, members of the sports media are calling it possibly the best ever. Throughout the long history of professional sports, there has always been a fitting – not seemingly coincidental – correlation between some of the greatest games being played in some of the greatest venues.

In 1958, Yankee Stadium played host to the NFL Championship Game, commonly referred to as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. More recently, possibly the greatest tennis match ever played occurred this past summer at Wimbledon between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Mark Messier also won the New York Rangers’ first Stanley Cup in 54 years in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. New York has what it takes to create great moments, and Tampa is quickly getting the hang of it.

Perhaps Tampa Bay is on to something. No matter what the official name on the stadium reads, whether it’s Tampa Stadium or Raymond James, the city of Tampa has been home to two of the most exciting Super Bowls in history. Before Ben Roethlisberger stood in front of the Buccaneer pirate ship, Bill Parcells was drenched in Gatorade and lifted off the field on the shoulders of his players. Parcells’ New York Giants had just won Super Bowl XXV at the old Tampa Stadium, thanks to Buffalo Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood who missed the game-winning kick wide right as time expired.

Sports Illustrated, in a recent issue, listed Tampa as the country’s third-best location to host a Super Bowl behind the top two vote-getters San Diego and Miami. Even with a feeble economy – which led to less media coverage, less celebrity appearances, and even cancelled Super Bowl parties – Tampa received sparkling reviews of the week that was. Ideal weather, a beautiful facility and natural gulf beaches paired with animated nightlife was persuasive enough for Mayor Pam Iorio and the Tampa City Council to place a bid for Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014.

NBC’s telecast of the game brought in huge ratings for the local affiliate, WFLA Channel 8. According to the Nielsen Ratings, NBC scored a 42.1 rating and a share of 65 – just two points below last year’s Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots. That game is significant not only for scoring a viewer rating of 44.7 which rendered it the most-watched Super Bowl of all time, but also because it serves as the prime source of head-to-head competition to this year’s game for the title as “greatest Super Bowl ever.”

Law enforcement did a terrific job of maintaining security checkpoints and procedures, as well as cracking down on fraudulent tickets and phony media credentials. The Tampa Police Department reported that 26 arrests were made in just a few hours before kickoff of those selling fake tickets at prices ranging from $2000-$5000 for admission into the stadium.

On Monday morning from a table at Starbucks, I witnessed a handful of tourists identified only by the Super Bowl merchandise adorning their bodies. I asked them to describe their experience from the entire week. Four gave positive responses, claiming they appreciated the cleanliness of the city and the various options for fun and entertainment including Clearwater Beach, International Mall and Busch Gardens. Those views reiterated what I heard the day before, on Super Bowl Sunday just a few hours prior to the game. Patrons outside Raymond James said the citizens and local businesses of Tampa Bay were friendly and welcoming, and that the city was easy to get around. Few were critical about the difficulties in getting not only near the stadium, but getting inside via Dale Mabry Highway and Himes Avenue. They also shared a mutual dislike for the ongoing city projects, primarily highway construction on Interstate 275 and the Veterans Expressway.

This year, Tampa avoided repeating a mistake that earned the city much criticism that last time the Super Bowl was here in 2001. Eight years ago, Super Bowl XXXV was held in succession one day after the traditional Gasparilla Parade in which there was an increase of criminal activity including vandalism, drunk driving and public disorder. This time was different. The allure of Tampa, as experienced from many fans from out of town, is now etched in their memories and classified as a great venue for the largest professional sporting event. Don’t forget, the games played here are pretty good too.

USF Defense Provides Much-Needed Win

After losing four out of its last five games, USF rebounded with a 17-13 win over Connecticut in this season’s final home game. The victory allowed the Bulls to avoid their first four-game losing streak in school history and guaranteed USF a bowl appearance, likely in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 20.

Still reeling from a three-game skid, the Bulls needed the win to lift the emotional burden of not playing up to expectations that led to this year’s mid-season collapse.

“We didn’t realize how long it’s been,” safety Carlton Williams told The St. Petersburg Times. “It’s been like a month. The feeling feels great.”

A much-needed win, the game also proved bittersweet for 21 seniors who played their final game in front of the home crowd at Raymond James Stadium. USF coaches, teammates and fans alike bid farewell to several key players including Jarriett Buie, Marcus Edwards, Taurus Johnson, Carlton Williams, Tyrone McKenzie, Ben Williams and Brouce Mompremier.

The seniors ended on a good note. Although the Bulls’ offense was not overpowering, totaling 247 total yards, it took just five plays over two minutes for USF to take a 7-0 lead. Dontavia Bogan sparked the drive with an 86-yard return on the opening kickoff, capped by a 3-yard run by Ben Williams.

USF’s defense was a different story. The Bulls compensated for the offense by holding Donald Brown, the nation’s leading rusher, to 96 yards on the night. Coming in to Sunday’s contest, Brown averaged 154 yards per game. With Connecticut threatening inside the five-yard line, the Bulls defense held strong and forced the Huskies to settle for a field goal and a seven-point deficit at halftime.

“We were physical and we knew what we had to do,” defensive end George Selvie said. “Just to have somebody play like that [for the seniors] is great.”

The defensive theme, as well as the momentum, carried into the second half during the fourth quarter with the game on the line. The Bulls stopped the Huskies on two consecutive drives: first on a third down-and-five from inside the 20 and again on a fourth down-and four, in which Connecticut got the first down but fumbled. Riding Jamar Taylor’s 25-yard touchdown run from the third quarter, USF sealed their seventh win of the season.

“The team defensively started to turn and finally did what they were supposed to do,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “We played football like defensive football is supposed to be played. It’s the best game I think we’ve had.”

USF wraps up 2008 with a tough game against conference rival West Virginia in Morgantown on Dec. 6.  A win against the Mountaineers and the Bulls could contend for a berth in the Gator Bowl.

USF Season Can’t Escape Tailspin

With a 49-16 pounding of USF on Saturday, surging Rutgers came one step closer to clinching a bowl berth, as the Scarlet Knights evened their record at 5-5. While Rutgers is beginning to gain momentum late in the season, USF finds itself in a downward spiral that is rapidly spinning out of control.

“It’s obvious we didn’t play very well,” USF head coach Jim Leavitt said. “Our football team is certainly down right now, about as down as you can get.”

Leavitt’s words, while referring to the loss, are a more appropriate summation of the Bulls’ season. The game’s result handed the Bulls their third consecutive loss, and the team’s fourth out of its previous five games. The Scarlet Knights’ 49 points also set a pair of records that the Bulls would like to forget: the touchdowns accounted for the most points allowed by the Bulls at Raymond James Stadium and the 33-point margin of defeat proved enough for the worst home-loss in school history.

Rutgers, on the other hand, extended the Big East’s longest current winning streak to four games, including Saturday’s win which was the third consecutive victory over USF. Quarterback Mike Teel is a large part of the team’s recent success. Against the Bulls, Teel threw for 294 yards and three touchdown passes, while also running from two yards out for an additional score.

Unlike its opponent, USF’s performance resembled more of the same of what fans seemingly witness on a weekly basis: failing to score inside the red-zone, costly penalties, missed scoring chances and harmful turnovers. In the first half, USF managed to keep up with Rutgers’ relentless attack, bringing the game to within four points in the second quarter. But as play resumed after halftime, both the offense and defense seemed to implode.

“We got our tails whipped in the second half. We couldn’t do anything,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “We played well the first half, then all of a sudden we couldn’t respond.”

In total, USF turned the ball over six times on offense, while the defense gave up 28 points in the second half after holding Rutgers scoreless in the first quarter.

“[The way we played] is disrespectful. The coaches did a great job, but we just didn’t do what we were supposed to do. This loss is all on the players,” linebacker Tyrone McKenzie said.

As a result of the loss, USF will finish the season with its first sub .500 conference record since joining the Big East. Despite USF’s deficiencies, coach Jim Leavitt attests that the Bulls will bounce back. In order to do that, the Bulls have to revert back to the formula that jumpstarted their success back in August.

“We got off to a great 5-0 start this season, but injuries and a lack of continuity have really hurt us a lot,” Leavitt said. “This is not the same team we were the first five games.”

USF’s Third Loss Puts Season in Serious Jeopardy

For the second time in less than a week, USF fell to another Big East opponent on the road. The 24-10 loss to Cincinnati will surely drop the Bulls out of the Top 25, and as the Bulls’ schedule drags on, this season proves not so different from the last. In both 2007 and 2008 USF got off to a strong start. Then came those painful mid-season slumps that transformed high expectations into utter disappointment. Thursday’s defeat marked USF’s third loss in its last four games, bearing an eerie parallel to the three-game losing streak of 2007. Last year’s loss to Rutgers came on the heels of a flawless 6-0 start, putting a damper on the remainder of the season.

“It’s miserable. It’s almost like last year all over again,” center Jake Griffin told the St. Petersburg Times. “I hope the university never schedules another Thursday night game.”

In fact, last year is looking better than what this season is shaping up to be. In 2007, the Bulls climbed all the way to the second spot in the BCS poll, but this year USF’s highest rank stood at #16. Last year’s upsets over Auburn and West Virginia proved the Bulls could compete against big programs, but three unexpected losses this season to less formidable teams left fans to reconsider.

Much like last Saturday’s loss at Louisville, USF gave up big plays, failed to score in the red-zone and were laden with penalties, but the Bulls’ struggling offense proved to be the difference maker that separated a much-needed win from a season-toppling loss. On the eve of Halloween, Matt Grothe’s performance appropriately resembled a nightmare. He threw three interceptions and only passed for 174 yards, half of his last game’s total. Trailing by 14 in the third quarter, Grothe failed to get the Bulls into the end-zone twice, once from inside the 10-yard line and again from near the goal line.

“When we had the ball inside the ten [yard line], not to convert there two times, there’s no excuse for that,” head coach Jim Leavitt told The St. Petersburg Times. “We have got to score points there.”

The Bulls defense proved just as futile. They allowed Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike to throw for 281 yards and two touchdowns while completing 20 of 28 passes. Pike’s performance contributed a large part to his team’s 39-point outscoring of the Bulls in the last two meetings.

A tough and emotional loss, the game really harmed USF in the standings. The Bulls currently sit in seventh place in the Big East, just atop woeful Syracuse, a single-win team so far this season. If the upcoming schedule is any indication, the Bulls may very well maintain their depressing state. After a much-needed week off, the Bulls return home on November 15 to take on Rutgers, who fortunately for the Bulls, is struggling. UConn, another victor against USF, then comes to town before the season’s conclusion.

Considering the Bulls’ season wraps up in Morgantown against Big East power West Virginia – a team likely to win the conference title – will the Bulls see another win all season?

Recent Upset Trend Makes Stop in Tampa

At the top of the Big East standings, a content, confident and possibly complacent Bulls team entered Thursday’s Big East opener with an undefeated 5-0 record. As a result, however, USF played with a target on its back and Pittsburgh hit the bull’s eye with a 26-21 win that is sure to drop USF severely in the AP poll.

Although the first official BCS standings don’t debut until later this month, there’s a very good chance USF’s national title hopes are over. Before Thursday’s game, Matt Grothe told The Tampa Tribune he felt the Bulls were in the same position as #1 ranked USC last week before they were upset by unranked Oregon State, and that hopefully the Pittsburgh game wouldn’t have the same outcome.

Unfortunately it did.

USF now joins Georgia, Florida, Ohio State and even USC as another one-loss team who expected to make a run at the Orange Bowl, but came up short.

In most cases, one loss will ruin a season. Both Miami in 2000 and Michigan in 2006 can attest. While it’s not impossible for one-loss teams to win it all – it’s even possible for a rare two-loss team to do it as LSU did last season – it is unlikely that USF will have the same luck.

Pittsburgh’s season-opening loss to unranked Bowling Green will haunt USF’s resume come December. Consider that any one-loss team from the Big 12 and potentially five from the SEC would jump the Bulls in the BCS because of schedule strength, their elite conferences and the number of “quality wins”, a term with a very ambiguous meaning.

The Bulls are now 0-2 on ESPN Thursday night games, with one more ESPN appearance still to come this season on October 30 at Cincinnati. USF must win out in order to receive a bid to a respectable bowl, but that includes beating West Virginia at Morgantown and UConn, who is considered to be the “sleeper” team in the Big East.

Luckily the Bulls don’t play again until October 18, giving them ample time to prepare for the tough opponents who lie ahead. Now the question shifts to whether the Bulls will even win the Big East conference, much less earn a spot in the BCS national championship game.