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September 10, 2007

Monday Morsels: USF no surprise

OK, maybe it's because we lived in Florida for the past nine years, but why is everyone so incredulous that USF beat Auburn 26-23 on Saturday night?

(Please don't call it "South Florida." Like UCLA, UNLV and many others, the school prefers to be known by its initials.)

It's not as if USF is some kind of a small, "directional-state" school that hasn't been here before. And it's not as if Auburn is some kind of offensive juggernaut (more on that in a minute) that merely needs to show up to win.

At one point during Saturday night's telecast, the ESPN announcing crew referred to "little South Florida." Tsk tsk. The school isn't little; it has more than 44,000 students, is located in Tampa and plays its home games in an NFL stadium (Raymond James Stadium). And it has beaten big-time opponents before – in each of the past two seasons, as a matter of fact (24-19 over No. 7 West Virginia in Morgantown last season and 45-14 over No. 9 Louisville at home in 2005).

USF has been to a bowl in each of the past two seasons, and by the end of last season, it was the second-best team in its football-mad state. Right now, it looks as if it might be the second-best team in the state again.

Coach Jim Leavitt and his staff have done a superb job taking second-tier in-state recruits and molding them into solid units on each side of the ball. Nothing derogatory is meant by "second-tier recruits." The state of Florida annually produces more than 300 players who sign Division I-A grants. USF rarely signs guys considered among the state's top 50; instead, they focus on the Tampa Bay area and dabble in Jacksonville, in the state's Panhandle and in South Florida. USF has one out-of-state starter, and that guy (SS Carlton Williams) is from Valdosta, Ga., about 30 miles north of the Florida border.

Truth be told, USF should've won easier than it did against Auburn. The Tigers turned it over five times – including two interceptions by senior quarterback Brandon Cox, who looks like a shell of his sophomore self – but USF didn't convert any into points. Had USF kicker Delbert Alvarado not gone 2-of-6 on his attempts, the game wouldn't have gone into overtime.

"They gave us three turnovers inside their 20 and we couldn't capitalize; sometimes that happens," USF quarterback Matt Grothe told usfbullseye.com. "But in the end, we showed we are not just an ordinary team."

Besides coming up with the five turnovers, USF's defense limited Auburn to 290 total yards and stayed in Cox's face all night. The Bulls finished with two sacks, but they applied good pressure throughout and were credited with 15 quarterback hurries. Auburn had some rushing success at times but couldn't sustain it, and the Tigers don't have a game-breaking wide receiver.

Part of the Tigers' offensive problems is a rebuilt offensive line. But a bigger part Saturday is that USF simply has a lot of good defensive players. Make that good and fast defensive players.

There's a really nice linebacker corps headed by Ben Moffitt, and junior Brouce Mompremier had his coming-out game with nine tackles against Auburn. End George Selvie is a big-time pass rusher. The Bulls also have the best cornerback duo in the state - and one of the best in the nation - in Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams. USF's secondary had seven pass breakups in addition to the two picks Saturday.

"We are on top right now and the sky is the limit," Selvie said after the victory.

One problem with USF in the past has been living with success. In 2001, in their first full season in Division I-A, the Bulls won at Pittsburgh then lost at home the next week to Memphis. In '05, while they crushed Louisville, they also lost to Connecticut. And last season, they looked bad in losses to Kansas and Cincinnati.

It may be good that the Bulls are off this week. They get to rest and get ready for visits from North Carolina on Sept. 22 and West Virginia on Sept. 28. Road games against Rutgers and Pitt and home contests against Cincinnati and Louisville are also on the schedule.

But nobody was worried about that Saturday night. Instead, the Bulls were busy celebrating their first victory over an SEC team.

"Everyone is hyped-up," Selvie said. "We just want to go home so we can get to the party."

Rivals.com Players of the Week
ACC
North Carolina WR Brandon Tate caught two touchdown passes and also returned a punt for a score in the Tar Heels' 34-31 loss to East Carolina. Tate finished with three catches for 102 yards, including TD grabs of 39 and 51 yards. His punt return covered 58 yards on the last play of the third quarter and tied the game at 31.
Big East
USF FS Nate Allen had seven tackles, an interception, a pass breakup, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble in the Bulls' 26-23 overtime victory at Auburn. He helped USF limit the Tigers to 290 yards of offense. Allen, a high school quarterback, moved into the lineup because projected starter Danny Verpaele is academically ineligible this season.
Big Ten
Iowa TE Tony Moeaki had eight catches for 112 yards and three TDs as the Hawkeyes blasted hapless Syracuse 35-0. Moeaki has 11 receptions after two games – the same number he had in 13 games last season.
Big 12
Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford carved up Miami's talented secondary to the tune of five TD passes in the Sooners' 51-13 mauling of the Hurricanes. Bradford, a redshirt freshman, was 19 of 25 for 205 yards and the five scores. After the first two starts of his college career, Bradford is completing 83.3 percent of his passes (40 of 48). He has thrown for 568 yards, eight TDs and no interceptions.
Conference USA
East Carolina QB Patrick Pinkney, a junior, threw for 406 yards and three TDs in his first college start as the Pirates edged North Carolina 34-31. ECU won on a 39-yard field goal by Ben Hartman on the final play of the game.
Mid-American
Central Michigan TB Ontario Sneed ran 29 times for 168 yards and three TDs; two of the scores came in a 21-point fourth quarter that helped the Chippewas put away conference foe Toledo 52-31. It was CMU's highest point total at home since 1986.
Mountain West
BYU QB Max Hall threw for 391 yards and two TDs in his second career start, but it wasn't enough as UCLA held off the Cougars 27-17. BYU couldn't run (44 yards on 25 carries), so Hall was forced to the air against a talented and experienced Bruins secondary. Hall finished 30-for-52 and threw one pick.
Pac-10
Oregon QB Dennis Dixon accounted for 368 yards of total offense and four TDs as the Ducks blasted host Michigan 39-7. Dixon passed for 292 yards and three TDs, and ran for another 76 yards and a score.
SEC
South Carolina starting LBs Casper Brinkley, Jasper Brinkley and Rodney Paulk combined for 17 tackles, two sacks and an interception as the Gamecocks shut down host Georgia in a 16-12 upset. The Bulldogs were 3-of-18 on third-down conversions and were held without a touchdown for the first time since a 14-9 loss to South Carolina in 2001. Georgia had been ranked No. 11 in The Associated Press poll, making them the highest-ranked team Steve Spurrier has beaten in his three seasons as the Gamecocks' coach.
Sun Belt
North Texas QB Daniel Meager threw for 517 yards last season. He threw for a school-record 601 Saturday – along with three TD passes – in a 45-31 loss to SMU. New coach Todd Dodge, who was ultra-successful at Southlake Carroll High School in suburban Dallas, has installed a wide-open passing offense. Meager looks like he has adjusted well. The Mean Green get to play someone their own size (they were mauled by Oklahoma in the opener) this week when they play Sun Belt Conference foe Florida Atlantic.
WAC
Hawaii QB Colt Brennan rallied his team to a 45-44 OT victory at Louisiana Tech by throwing for 548 yards and four TDs and running for another score. Three of his TD passes came in the second half.

On the rebound

Washington was one of the nation's premier programs in the 1990s, but the Huskies have fallen on hard times of late. They haven't gone to a bowl since 2002 and were a combined 21-38 over the past five seasons. Evidence of their lack of talent? The Huskies have had five players total selected in the past three NFL drafts.

Third-year coach Tyrone Willingham looks to have the Huskies on the upswing. They beat Boise State 24-10 on Saturday, ending the Broncos' nation-best 14-game winning streak. (Think about that for a second: Washington beating Boise State is evidence that the Huskies are to be taken seriously again.) It was Washington's first win over a ranked team since 2003 (27-19 over Washington State) and ended an 11-game losing streak against teams in the top 25.

"This speaks volumes for our team and hopefully for our program," Willingham told reporters after the game.

Redshirt freshman QB Jake Locker is a playmaker, senior TB Louis Rankin has become a big-play guy and junior LB E.J. Savannah has emerged as the defensive leader.

But as impressive as Saturday's victory looked, the next five games are going to tell whether the Huskies truly are back or if they are just a middle-of-the-pack Pac-10 team. Next week, Washington plays host to Ohio State. After that, it's at UCLA (Sept. 22), home vs. USC (Sept. 29), then at Arizona State (Oct. 13) before finishing up the brutal stretch with a home game against Oregon.

The Huskies looked prepared to break through last season with a 4-1 start that included a 10-point victory over UCLA. But they fell apart after that, finishing 5-7. The Huskies won their season finale at Washington State.

While Willingham understandably was happy with Saturday's win, he also offered some caution.

"The potential is there," he told reporters. "If we believe [Saturday] is the be-all, end-all, we've made a very serious mistake."

No party-crashing allowed

Saturday was not a good day for potential BCS-busters. Boise State, BYU, Southern Miss and TCU all lost.

The only non-BCS team that looks to have a chance to crash the postseason party is Hawaii, which needed overtime to beat a Louisiana Tech team that was picked to finish near the bottom of the WAC. Warriors QB Colt Brennan threw for 548 yards and four touchdowns, but the victory wasn't secured until Louisiana Tech failed on a two-point conversion attempt after its TD in the first overtime.

We'll try to be nice here: Teams that barely beat Louisiana Tech – and have to rally to do so – aren't likely to end up in a BCS bowl.

One potential excuse for Hawaii was that it had traveled about 4,050 miles to get to Tech's campus in Ruston; that's the longest road trip for any team this season. Hawaii will remain on the mainland this week to prepare for next Saturday's game at UNLV.

Hawaii returned to Houston after its game Saturday, then will fly to Las Vegas on Friday. The Warriors will leave for home – a six-hour flight – from Vegas early Sunday.

Brennan professes not to be bothered by the long road trip. "You know what, man? We live in paradise and that's the price we pay to live here," he told reporters last week.

Grid bits

• There were 73 points scored (along with 761 yards of offense) in the first half of Louisville's 58-42 victory over Middle Tennessee State last Thursday; the Cards led 38-35 at halftime. The NCAA Division I-A record (yes, we know the subdivisions have new names, but there's no way I'm using them) for points in a half is 76 in Houston's 100-6 victory over Tulsa in 1968. Western Kentucky tied the record for I-A points in a quarter by scoring 49 in the first against NAIA foe West Virginia Tech on Saturday (WKU won 87-0). That ties the 49 scored by Houston in the fourth quarter of that 1968 rout.

• The Citadel had a lot of fun Saturday, hammering NAIA member Webber International 76-0. The Citadel will be on the other end of a blowout this week when the Bulldogs, a Division I-AA team, play at Wisconsin. The Badgers looked mighty mediocre in squeaking by a bad UNLV team Saturday. Hmm – how does 56-0 Wisconsin sound?

• Minnesota has played three overtime games in a row. The Golden Gophers lost to Texas Tech in the Insight Bowl to end last season (a loss that cost then-coach Glen Mason his job), opened this season with an OT loss to Bowling Green, then prevailed over Miami University in OT on Saturday.

• Texas Tech rallied from a 21-7 first-quarter deficit to beat UTEP 45-31. After the Red Raiders fell behind by two touchdowns, 38 of their next 44 plays were – no surprise– passes. They led 31-28, too.

• Miami plays host to Florida International this week. Last year's game in the Orange Bowl unfortunately will be remembered for a long time because of a nasty brawl. Given that new FIU coach Mario Cristobal is a former UM player and assistant (he was Miami's offensive line coach last season), you have to think tempers will be kept under control this season. Both teams are playing their home games at the Orange Bowl this season (FIU is renovating its on-campus stadium), but this is a UM home game.

• Yet another reason the coaches' poll leaves you scratching your head every single week. Auburn was ranked 13th last week, then loses at home to USF. Auburn falls out of the top 25, but still gets more votes than USF. Yeah, that makes sense.

• It's Week 2 of the season, and already we're sick of hearing guys described as "Lombardi/Thorpe/etc. award candidates." Picking a Top 25 before games have been played is dumb enough; what's far dumber is anointing a guy an award candidate before the season even starts.

Under-the-radar games

At first glance, these games don't jump out at you. But upon further review, they look a whole lot better.

• Pittsburgh at Michigan State: Both are 2-0. This is another chance for a Big East team to flex its muscles against a nonconference BCS foe. Pitt's defense will get its first real test, and a victory could propel the Panthers to a 6-0 start. Meanwhile, if Michigan State wins, the Spartans would be firmly on their way to a bowl in coach Mark Dantonio's first season.

• Southern Miss at East Carolina: The C-USA East Division title could be on the line. Southern Miss needs to run effectively to win, but ECU's run defense has been stout against two ACC schools (Virginia Tech and North Carolina). The only other division team that looks to have a shot at the crown is UCF, which coincidentally welcomes Texas this week as it unveils its 45,000-seat on-campus stadium.

• Wyoming at Boise State: Wyoming looked good in Week 1 in shutting down Virginia, then struggled to get past lowly Utah State on Saturday. Boise's offense couldn't get anything going against Washington. Wyoming's defense is good enough to win this, but can the Cowboys' offense provide enough points?

On the move?

• Pitt AD Jeff Long reportedly is in line to become the new athletic director at Arkansas, replacing longtime Hogs kingmaker Frank Broyles. We certainly don't envy Long, who would take over a fractured fan base after the soap-opera offseason endured at Arkansas by Broyles and coach Houston Nutt. As a whole, though, Arkansas' athletic program is in solid shape.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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