USF likely won't get second chance like the big boys
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- South Florida began the week as one of six undefeated teams left in major college football. The Bulls were ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings, behind only venerable Ohio State, and had grand illusions of crashing the BCS party like no other upstart program had before.
When the weekend ends, South Florida will be like a lot of other college football teams. The Bulls will have a blemished record after losing to Rutgers 30-27 in front of 44,267 fans at Rutgers Stadium on Thursday night. They'll still be fighting for a conference title and a spot in a New Year's Day bowl game.
Unlike most other teams, though, South Florida won't have another opportunity at playing in the BCS Championship Game for a national title.
When you're an 11-year-old college football program and belong to a conference that lost three of its best teams only three years ago, there are no mulligans.
But the Bulls deserve a mulligan as much as LSU or Oklahoma.
The Tigers were given the benefit of the doubt a week ago, after the country's No. 1-ranked team lost at No. 17 Kentucky 43-37 in triple overtime. LSU fell to only No. 5 in the human polls and was fourth in the BCS standings.
Cal's surprising defeat to Oregon State last week was the 10th time a top-10 ranked team had lost to an unranked team during this unpredictable college football season. The Bulls became the 11th such victim on Thursday night.
But South Florida will be penalized more than LSU. And more than Oklahoma, which lost at Colorado 27-24 on Sept. 29. The Sooners are back to No. 5 in the BCS standings after beating Texas and Missouri in consecutive games.
When the new college football polls are released Sunday, chances are the Bulls will probably be ranked even lower than No. 9 West Virginia, which lost at South Florida 21-13 on Sept. 28.
That's the way college football works.
"Our goal never had anything to do with the rankings," South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said. "So that's not something I think about because I don't have anything to do with it. Our goal is to win the Big East. We took a hit tonight, for sure. There's no room [for error]. You still have a shot with one [loss], but I don't know if you can win it with two."
Our goal is to win the Big East. We took a hit tonight, for sure. There's no room [for error]. You still have a shot with one [loss], but I don't know if you can win it with two.
--USF coach Jim Leavitt
The Bulls took more than a hit. The Scarlet Knights delivered a combination of blows with their pass rush and strong running game, and South Florida inflicted more than a few wounds of its own.
Rutgers converted a fake punt on its first drive to kick a field goal, then turned the game for good by scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal late in the third quarter. The Bulls missed a field goal and had another field goal attempt blocked.
"Our kicking game was a real big difference in the game," Leavitt said. "On the kick returns, they got out of the gates a couple of times and it really gave them good field position. We had a field goal blocked, which really hurt us, and we missed another field goal. That's six points right there."
The Bulls even had six points taken off the scoreboard. South Florida returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown, a turnover that would have put the Bulls ahead 24-10 late in the first half. But officials ruled linebacker Tyrone McKenzie illegally lateralled the football forward to cornerback Trae Williams, who ran about 24 yards for an apparent touchdown.
"It was a huge call, no doubt about it," Leavitt said. "When you change a call like that, it's big. But that didn't have anything to do with the second half."
The Scarlet Knights defense had everything to do with the second half. South Florida couldn't protect quarterback Matt Grothe, who was sacked seven times. After cutting Rutgers' lead to 30-27 in the fourth quarter, the Bulls twice took possession inside Scarlet Knights territory during the final 4½ minutes.
During those drives, South Florida ran seven offensive plays and lost 32 yards. Grothe was sacked on first down on each of the possessions, the first of which ended with a punt and the second ending on an interception with 49 seconds to play.
"We had the ball at the 50-yard line at the end, which is exactly the situation you want, with the chance to at least attempt a field goal or get a touchdown," Leavitt said. "We didn't protect very good. We have to get the ball off, and Matt probably held onto the ball too much, instead of getting rid of the ball. They were getting through. We all saw the same thing."
Rutgers tailback Ray Rice saw nothing but open space for much of the night. He hurt the Bulls badly for the second year in a row, running for 181 yards on 39 carries. He ran for 202 yards and scored two touchdowns in Rutgers' 22-20 victory at South Florida last season. The Bulls didn't allow a 100-yard runner in their next 14 games until facing Rice again.
Rice went over the 100-yard mark against South Florida early in the third quarter. He gained 36 more yards than West Virginia's Steve Slaton and Pat White and NCAA Division I-A rushing leader Kevin Smith of Central Florida had against the Bulls this season -- combined.
"He's a natural back," Williams said. "When he's running, he's a powerful back. When he's in open space, he's hard to bring down."
And the Scarlet Knights were hard to slow down. Quarterback Mike Teel threw for 179 yards and two touchdowns and wasn't intercepted or sacked. Rutgers held Bulls defensive end George Selvie without a sack for the first time this season.
"All week we were hearing about Selvie," Rutgers defensive tackle Eric Foster said. "That's all we were hearing about, and [offensive tackle] Pedro Sosa shut him down."
Now the Bulls have to make sure they don't shut it down after their dreams of a perfect season were dashed.
"I thought we had a chip on our shoulders tonight, that we would prove something to the nation, that we are deserving of the ranking," Williams said. "Obviously, we didn't get it done."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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