This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011, which I will obtain promptly next Tuesday and barricade myself in my office to play until I master it, or until my wife threatens divorce, whichever comes first.
Well, how can this be about any other team than the 2007 Bulls? Even though some people (read: complete and total cranks) would try to tell you the 2007 squad was a disappointment, they gave us a ton of memories and our first taste of being a big-time football program. Except for a championship, that season had everything you could want as a fan.
There's always a buzz during fall practice as the new season approaches. But 2007 had a different kind of buzz. People had the feeling that this team might Do Something, and everyone had that second game of the season circled as the big litmus test.
The Auburn game was probably the most emotionally exhausting in USF history. I didn't even get to watch the first few minutes because the game on before it ran long. (I mean, God forbid I miss ONE FREAKIN' SECOND of the glorified kicking contest that was Georgia/South Carolina that night.) ESPN2 put this little update box in the corner of my TV that updated after every play. That's how I found out the Bulls had scored first, while Steve Spurrier was disgracing his offensive legacy by settling for field goals and punting in opponents' territory all night long.
Finally the game switched over, and I'm surprised it didn't give me a heart attack. The Bulls went up 14-3. Auburn came back to take the lead, but they couldn't stop turning the ball over. And Delbert Alvarado couldn't stop missing field goals. At last he made one to tie it, but Wes Byrum un-tied it with three minutes left.
Things looked bad. I was just about out of fingernails to chew. But Jerome Murphy broke off a huge kick return and USF got into field goal range.
OK big shot, you want to be a head coach? Make this decision. It's 4th and goal at the 2 with a minute to play. You trail 20-17. Your kicker is 1-for-5 on field goals in the game. You have no timeouts. You must score or the game is over. The ball is on the left hash mark at a terrible angle for your right-footed kicker. You are on the road in front of 87,000 people. What do you do? Leavitt called for the field goal, and he would still be getting second-guessed today if Alvarado had missed another one. But Delbert kicked it right through. Overtime.
Let's look at that from another angle, shall we?
That might have been enough drama for an entire season. Not this one, though. We were just getting started.
USF gained its first national ranking after the subsequent bye week, then pummeled North Carolina. Fifth-ranked West Virginia was up next, the big showdown for what we all thought would be Big East supremacy. RichRod broke out his stupid Yankees routine, the stadium sold out, everyone shouted their lungs out for three and a half hours, and USF came out with another win, 21-13.
That's when we hit the big time. Being a USF fan was a crazy blur for almost a month straight after that game. Leavitt was hijacking a Florida-Auburn game on ESPN with a phone interview. Some fans tried to make a case for Matt Grothe being better than Tim Tebow. (There was a very brief window in which this was not entirely ridiculous.) Bonehead national columnists, out-of-town sports radio hosts, and wire services were trying to figure out who we were and coming up with every possible way to get our school's name wrong -- Southern Florida, S. Florida, Florida Southern, Central Florida, and God knows how many others. Grothe's mohawk, cleverly named a "Gro-hawk", became a fashion trend. Everyone started studying the polls like they would be tested on them as other ranked teams lost. Nick Saban took time out of his busy schedule of losing to UL-Monroe to go on some idiotic rant about USF and partial qualifiers, which was universally shot down. The team nearly gave us a stroke by trying their best to lose to Florida Atlantic before Ben "BBQ" Williams rescued us with a huge second-half effort. We found out about George Selvie's addiction to Honey Buns. UCF fans went more insane than normal in the days leading up to their game in Tampa, and the Bulls pasted them 64-12 in a beating that might have continued indefinitely if the clock hadn't reached zero.
I used to watch Bucs games every Sunday at a bar in Dallas with some friends who have since moved away. I'm one of those geeks who goes watches football games while using a laptop, and that season I would have it open in front of me, studying my fantasy teams and waiting for the new AP polls to come out. The day after the UCF game, I hit the refresh button for the 100th time and there it was - South Florida was ranked #2. I blurted out "NUMBER TWO!!" and then had to explain what I meant to a dumbfounded table. They couldn't believe it either. The heights the program had reached in a little over a month were staggering.
Unfortunately, I quickly realized the downside. Once you get that high in the polls, and you get that championship taste in your mouth, there's no going back. If you lose one game, it's all over, and that loss would feel much worse than winning felt good. Every game for the rest of the year would be a nerve-wracking affair, praying for the Bulls to come through and keep the party going for another week. To be honest, I was kind of dreading it because I knew they weren't going to run the table, just on odds, and that meant the f un was going to get sucked out of watching the games.
Of course, the next three games weren't much fun to watch anyway. There was the infamous loss/referee screwjob against Rutgers. There was the rain-drenched and windswept loss to UConn that nearly destroyed my wedding day, complete with several "Voodoo 5"-esque goal line disasters. Plus there was the turnover-filled debacle at home against Cincinnati, where the Bulls still got themselves in position to steal the game until Carlton Mitchell dropped a touchdown pass with two seconds left that would have saved the day. It was absolutely horrible. And just like I had feared, it felt much worse than winning had felt good.
At least the Bulls responded positively. They clobbered Syracuse, then broke out the ROFLcopter on Louisville, scoring less than 10 seconds into the game and ekeing out a 55-17 win as the Cardinals completely self-destructed. Now USF had an opportunity to salvage the season and go to a respectable bowl by beating Pittsburgh. So naturally they came out completely flat and trailed 14-10 at halftime.
I was beside myself at home in front of my TV. I was NOT going to accept another bowl game named after a Web site where you can order pizza, dammit! Fortunately, neither was Matt Grothe. This was the first play of the second half.
The Bulls peeled off 38 points in the last two quarters, and even as I whipped myself into a frenzy with every garbage-time score Pittsburgh put up, the 48-37 win put them into the Sun Bowl against Oregon. Finally! A bowl people had heard of! A bowl on a network! A bowl that would offer strong competition! A bowl I could actually attend!
I flew to El Paso. I switched hotels after the recommended hotel downtown was a fleabag and a static electricity-ridden disaster. I stayed the hell out of Juarez and went to Carlsbad instead. I brought an NES and a copy of Duck Hunt for a dinner party so we could all lay waste to some 8-bit ducks. On game day, I drove over to the stadium and hiked up to the gate. And I sat there and watched Jonathan Stewart gash the USF defense for approximately 47,000 yards and 250 touchdowns.
As I watched the locals resort to fighting each other in the stands for entertainment as the Oregon side of the scoreboard went ever higher, there was a lot of time to think about the season. It was a terrible end to the year (it got so bad I broke out my patented "let's go berserk over a first down even though we're getting obliterated" move), but I realized that we had all seen a decade's worth of memories packed into a single season, and that the program had finally hit critical mass. There was no championship or 10-win season or bowl game trophy to put in the case, but it was by far the most exciting season in USF history. And until the Bulls finally bring home a title, I don't think any other season will ever surpass it.
So... what's your favorite moment from that season? Or is there another team that stands out even more?