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.

TO BATTLE, OR NOT TO BATTLE

by Peter Pupello

A rather anti-climactic series on the field in years past, the continuing war of words off the field fell nowhere short of Ohio State and Michigan.

The disagreement between both schools’ coaches, players and fans has less to do with wins or losses and more to do with continuing or ending the series.

“One side gets it, but as far as the other side goes, I don’t know what the problem is,” UCF head coach George O’Leary told the Tampa Tribune regarding why USF won’t continue the rivalry

Here’s some food for thought: As USF continues to build a reputation and climb the college football ranks, the Bulls, who play in a competitive BCS conference, have moved on to bigger and better things.

The Bulls want to star in one of five BCS bowl games in January, and they have to play tougher teams to get there. Not to mention, the risk of losing to UCF is far too great for the Bulls: a loss to the Knights would cause a plummet in the polls.

Saturday’s thriller was too close for comfort. The Bull’s sealed their perfect record against the Knights and ended any UCF hope of breaking it (for now), but for USF fans, it was fun while it lasted.

The Bulls End the Series With A Close Call

In the final matchup between the cross-state rivals, USF capped its perfect 4-0 record against UCF Saturday night with a 31-24 win in overtime.

Matt Grothe found Cedric Hill in the end zone twice, scoring back-to-back touchdowns with three minutes to play. The Bulls led most of the game, but Grothe’s next pass was intercepted, leading to a monumental Knights comeback.

According to a quote from the St. Petersburg Times, coach Jim Leavitt said, “We made a lot of mistakes, and we didn’t use our judgment with three minutes to go in the game. We had the game under control, but we have to make better decisions.”

First, UCF quarterback Michael Greco hit tight end Corey Rabazinski from 15 yards out to pull within one score, and less than a minute later Greco connected with wide receiver Rocky Ross to tie the game.

The Bulls escaped disaster when UCF’s final play on 4th and 6th in overtime fell just inches short.

“When the defense made that stop, I was down on all four knees just praying, saying thank God we won the game,” wide receiver Taurus Johnson told the St. Petersburg Times.

14 USF seniors earned lifelong bragging rights in the win, while it rendered UCF 0-18 against ranked opponents.

USF Bulls dominate Skyhawks in season opener

by Peter Pupello

 

The #19 Bulls kicked off the 2008 season with the second-highest attended home opener in USF history, in a 56-7 win against overmatched Tennessee-Martin.

The Bulls sluggish performances in their past two season-openers, against Elon and McNeese State, apparently taught them something: do not take any opponent for granted.

“The thing I’m happiest about is that sometimes we’ve played a team like that and we haven’t done what we were supposed to do,” coach Jim Leavitt said. This Saturday night was a different story. The Bulls did exactly what they wanted to do, and more.

Early this season it was evident that the Bulls would have no trouble finding options on offense thanks to a depth chart of dangerous playmakers. Junior quarterback Matt Grothe got his reps in early and opened scoring for the Bulls with an 18-yard pass to Jessie Hester for a quick 7-0 lead just five minutes into the game.

Grothe hooked up with Hester again in the second quarter, finishing the night 6-of-8 with 96 yards passing and two touchdowns before yielding to backup quarterbacks Grant Gregory and B.J. Daniels.

It appeared sophomore running back Mike Ford didn’t miss a beat during the offseason, continuing on Saturday night where he left off in 2007. Last season, Ford set a Bulls freshman record for 13 touchdowns in a single season, 12 of them rushing, making him the team leader. Ford scored on two runs of four and six yards in the first quarter to extend the Bulls lead to 21. The other half of the dynamic duo, Benjamin Williams, added a touchdown run of 12 yards that concluded a Bulls record 28-point opening quarter.

[Our guys] took it upon themselves, and they wanted to come out and start real strong and play well,” Leavitt said. “Our last game that everybody remembers was our bowl game, and that wasn’t a lot of fun. So it was kind of important to get out and play good football.”

The Bull’s defense was equally impressive, forcing pressure in the pocket and completely shutting down any Tennessee-Martin attack. The Bulls allowed just 97 yards of total offense and 0 points. The Skyhawks’ only score came on a defensive fumble recovery by Dontrell Miller, which he returned for a touchdown.

“We wanted to set the tone early, especially on defense,” safety Carlton Williams said, “Once you start, you don’t want to let anybody get momentum. Our goal was to keep going and keep going and don’t let up.”

Offense and defense set the tone, and senior Marcus Edwards stole the show on special teams. Edwards set a new Bulls record with 124 yards on seven punt returns.

Coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons, The Bulls has evolved from their status as one of the Sunshine State’s mediocre programs and are now a force to be reckoned with.

The Bulls face some tough teams this season with games against Kansas, Pittsburgh, and the finale against West Virginia in Morgantown. With last season’s collapse in mind, the Bulls will have to stay focused to conquer the challenge of college football’s toughest leap: going from good to great.