Commentary

South Florida's win over Auburn biggest in program history

Updated: September 10, 2007, 12:59 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Two years ago, South Florida ruined Louisville's national championship hopes. Last season, the Bulls upset West Virginia and nearly knocked off Rutgers.

Jessie Hester Jr.,
AP Photo/Dave MartinSouth Florida receiver Jessie Hester Jr. caught the 14-yard game winner in the first overtime.

But stunning 17th-ranked Auburn 26-23 in overtime at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night might do more for South Florida's long-term credibility than anything the Bulls had done before.

Never before had South Florida gone on the road and beaten a heavyweight from another BCS conference.

"It's certainly a hard place to win," Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said Sunday, a day after quarterback Matt Grothe fired a 14-yard touchdown to Jessie Hester Jr. to stun the Tigers in front of a sold-out crowd of 82,617.

"It's hard to beat Auburn, let alone at Auburn. I grew up in the South, so maybe it's bigger to me than some people. I've known about Auburn for a long time."

Not many people have known about South Florida for very long. Leavitt, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., started the Bulls' football program from scratch 11 years ago after working as defensive coordinator at Kansas State.

Leavitt has raised South Florida from its infancy. He and his coaching staff worked out of trailers until three years ago, and they lighted the team's practice fields with the headlights of their cars until permanent lights were installed.

The Bulls did nothing but practice for an entire season in 1996, then played only four years in Division I-AA before making the jump to I-A status in 2001. South Florida won 17 games in its first two seasons as a I-A independent, then joined Conference USA for two years.

The Bulls are playing in their third season in the Big East, and they've shown there's more to the league than Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia. Last season, South Florida went 9-4 and beat East Carolina 24-7 in the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., the program's first victory in a bowl game.

Slowly but surely, the Bulls are proving there's more in Florida than the Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes.

"This community wants South Florida to be great in football," Leavitt said. "It was never the 'Big Three' [in Florida] during the 1970s. It was always just Florida. Miami wasn't good. Florida State was a teacher's school and wasn't very good for a long time.

"I knew South Florida could have a good program because I saw what Miami and Florida State did over a 20-year period. I knew we could do the same thing."

While beating Auburn was a big step in that direction, Leavitt knows the Bulls still have a long way to go.

"We've never won a championship," Leavitt said. "We've done a lot of things a lot of other people have done. We've got a long way to go. You haven't done anything until you win championships."

That might happen sooner than later.

On (and Off) the Mark

On the Mark
First-year Louisiana Tech coach Derek Dooley made the right call in going for the two-point conversion and win in overtime against Hawaii on Saturday night.

Michael Lafaele
AP Photo/Kita WrightHawaii's Michael Lafaele was elated when La. Tech's two-point conversion attempt failed.

After the Warriors kicked a 49-yard field goal with 1:34 left in regulation, Hawaii scored on the second play of overtime on Colt Brennan's six-yard touchdown to Jason Rivers. The PAT kick put Hawaii ahead 45-38.

Louisiana Tech, a 28-point underdog in its own stadium, answered with Zac Champion's two-yard touchdown pass to Dustin Mitchell. Instead of tying the game with a PAT kick, Dooley elected to go for the two-point conversion and improbable win.

Hawaii knocked down Champion's pass to preserve a 45-44 victory.

Several minutes after the gut-wrenching loss, Dooley received a telephone call from his father, former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who didn't attend the game.

"He asked me why I went for two," Derek Dooley said Sunday night. "I told him it was the right thing to do. I answered a smart-[alec] question with a smart-[alec] answer."

So what was the younger Dooley thinking?

"Our defense played their hearts out and made a great stop at the end of [regulation], and Hawaii ends up kicking a 49-yard field goal to force overtime," Dooley said. "We went to overtime and they had two of the easiest plays they had the whole game. I just felt like we were out of gas on defense and they weren't slowing down. I thought the longer the game went, the less chance we'd have to win."

At least the Bulldogs had a chance to win at all.

"You have to make the decision," Dooley said. "Obviously, the conservative, safe approach was to kick the extra point and keep playing. Most people have been supportive. They ask me, 'Would you do the same thing again?' Hell, no. But that's what I thought was our best chance to win. You've got to live with it."

(Off) the Mark
So was the elder Dooley second-guessing his former team's decision to kick a field goal late in its 16-12 loss to South Carolina on Saturday night?

Plenty of Georgia fans were questioning coach Mark Richt's decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-15 with less than five minutes left, instead of trying for a game-tying touchdown.

Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford had missed on three straight passes from inside the Carolina 20 before senior Brandon Coutu kicked his team's fourth field goal.

Richt was gambling on getting the football back with time left to try for a game-winning touchdown. He lost. The Bulldogs took possession at their 20-yard line with 81 seconds to go. Georgia got as far as Carolina's 46-yard line before Stafford threw an interception.

On the Mark
A few players redeemed themselves after rough starts. Mississippi State quarterback Michael Henig, who threw six interceptions in the Bulldogs' 45-0 loss to LSU in the opener, completed 20 of 31 passes for 223 yards and one touchdown in a 38-17 win at Tulane. Henig completed all five of his passes on the drive to start the second half, leading the Bulldogs to the go-ahead touchdown.

South Carolina quarterback Blake Mitchell, who was suspended from his team's opener for missing too many classes during summer school, completed 20 of 31 passes for 174 yards in the upset of No. 11 Georgia. More importantly, Mitchell didn't make many mistakes in what was the biggest win of the Steve Spurrier era at South Carolina.

Also, East Carolina kicker Ben Hartman missed three field goals, then made a 39-yarder to beat North Carolina 34-31.

(Off) the Mark
Will Duke ever win again? The Blue Devils lost 24-13 to Virginia on Saturday, running their losing streak to 22 consecutive games. Duke hasn't won since beating Virginia Military Institute in 2005. It hasn't beaten a Division I-A opponent since 2004. There's hope for Duke, though. Notre Dame is on its schedule.

On the Mark
Thrilling upsets. Washington over Boise State. South Carolina over Georgia. South Florida over Auburn. Oregon over Michigan. Northern Iowa over Iowa State.

And plenty of near-upsets. Louisiana Tech against Hawaii. Fresno State against Texas A&M. UNLV against Wisconsin. Wake Forest against Nebraska. UAB against Florida State.

(Off) the Mark
The chances of a non-BCS team grabbing an at-large spot in a BCS bowl game were greatly diminished last weekend. Texas beat TCU 34-13. Washington upset Boise State 24-10. Tennessee dropped Southern Mississippi 39-19. UCLA beat BYU 27-17. The last hope? Aforementioned Hawaii, a shaky two-point winner over Louisiana Tech.

On the Mark

Curtis Painter
AP Photo/Michael ConroyPurdue quarterback Curtis Painter tied a school record with six touchdown passes.
Big-time quarterbacks. Hawaii's Colt Brennan (548 yards, five touchdowns, four passing and one running versus Louisiana Tech). Tennessee's Erik Ainge (276 yards, two touchdowns versus Southern Miss). Louisville's Brian Brohm (401 yards, four touchdowns versus Middle Tennessee). Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (205 yards, five touchdowns versus Miami). Clemson's Cullen Harper (270 yards, five touchdowns versus Louisiana-Monroe). Oregon's Dennis Dixon (292 yards, three touchdowns versus Michigan). Florida's Tim Tebow (five touchdowns, three passing and two running, versus Troy). Purdue's Curtis Painter (six touchdowns versus Eastern Illinois).

(Off) the Mark
Quarterback controversies. It didn't take Miami and Virginia Tech long to play musical chairs under center. In coach Randy Shannon's second game, the Hurricanes benched Kirby Freeman and went to Kyle Wright, who was just as ineffective in an embarrassing 51-13 loss at Oklahoma.

Hokies starter Sean Glennon didn't make it through the second quarter of Tech's 48-7 loss at No. 2 LSU. He was replaced by freshman Tyrod Taylor, who threw for 62 yards and ran nine times for 44 yards and one touchdown.

On the Mark
Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey pulled his starters after the first quarter of a 69-14 rout against Division I-AA Samford. Gailey used 73 players in the game. Tech led 45-0 at halftime, its most points in a half since beating Cumberland 222-0 in 1916. The Yellow Jackets scored nine rushing touchdowns and threw only 12 passes.

(Off) the Mark
Western Kentucky figured it was going to take its lumps in its first season as a Division I-A program. The Hilltoppers were walloped 49-3 by defending national champion Florida in last week's opener.

Western Kentucky followed that performance by whipping West Virginia Tech 87-0 on Saturday. The Golden Bears, an NAIA team, have lost 23 of 24 games the last three seasons combined.

The Hilltoppers scored 49 points in the first quarter, three in the second and 35 in the third. Western Kentucky used 70 players and held the not-so-Golden Bears to 15 yards of offense on 47 plays.

Couldn't the Hilltoppers find an opponent that would be a little more competitive? Maybe Michigan?

On the Mark
The Pac-10. Oregon over Michigan. UCLA over BYU. Washington over Boise State. Arizona State over Colorado. California over Colorado State. If not for Oregon State's ugly 34-3 loss at Cincinnati on Thursday night, it would have been a perfect week for the West Coast league.

(Off) the Mark
The SEC. Two ranked teams (No. 11 Georgia and No. 17 Auburn) fall at home. Missouri drills Ole Miss. LSU might be the league's only contender for a BCS national championship.

On the Mark
LSU's defense. Oklahoma's offense. Army and Air Force's winning on the same day. Texas in the second half. Florida in the first half. California's DeSean Jackson. Penn State's Derrick Williams. Oregon's fake Statue of Liberty play. Tyrone Willingham's redemption. Steve Spurrier. North Texas receiver Casey Fitzgerald (327 receiving yards versus SMU). East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney (a third-stringer two weeks ago). Alabama's Terry Grant. Division III Heidelberg College in Ohio, a winner for the first time in 37 games.

(Off) The Mark
Notre Dame versus Michigan. Miami's offense. Louisville's defense. NC State quarterback Harrison Beck. Winning streaks ending (Boise State, BYU and TCU). Wisconsin's close call. Texas A&M's closer call. Lloyd Carr. Ron English. Mike Hart's guarantee. Virginia's special teams. Reveille's suspension.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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