The headline in the next day's Tampa Tribune following USF's 35-26 shocker over Pittsburgh ten years ago today, on September 8, 2001.
A big reason USF's football program has reached its current state is because they've been able to go out and win their share of marquee games, especially on the road. The latest example was the win over Notre Dame last Saturday, but today is the 10th anniversary of the Bulls' first big road upset.
Back in 2001, the Bulls were entering their first season as a full FBS member. After dropping a tough one at Northern Illinois, which the Huskies won with a last-second field goal, USF regrouped for an even bigger challenge -- a trip to Pittsburgh on September 8, 2001, to play the Panthers in their new stadium, Heinz Field. Although Pittsburgh would be without star receiver Antonio Bryant, USF was reportedly a 22-point underdog and figured to be no match for an established program that had shut out Penn State and gone bowling the year before.
The Bulls waited exactly one second to send an opening statement to the Panthers. Santiago Gramatica hit a pooch kickoff that spun to a stop in a dead zone between lines of blockers for Pittsburgh, and Maurice Tucker hustled in to recover at the Panthers' 29-yard line. Although Marquel Blackwell threw an interception on that series, the tempo had been set, and it was going to be USF dictating it.
This was USF's first season with Mike Hobbie's hurry-up spread offense, and they used it as a bully tactic against Pittsburgh. The Bulls ran a total of 97 plays in the game for 443 yards. Their longest drive of the game in terms of clock used was a 14-play, 73-yard march that lasted just 3:43. That drive ended with DeAndrew Rubin's second touchdown reception of the first quarter, giving the Bulls a 14-0 lead that stood up for nearly the entire half.
After being forced to punt on their first seven possessions, the Panthers finally scored just before halftime on a long pass from David Priestley (who had come on early for an ineffective Rod Rutherford) to Roosevelt Bynes. USF's lead was cut to 14-7 at halftime. But the Bulls got touchdowns on two consecutive drives in the third quarter, one set up by a fumble by Pittsburgh's Tutu Ferguson on a punt return. Blackwell threw touchdown passes to Brian Fisher and Hugh Smith to give USF a stunning 28-7 lead.
Finally Pittsburgh got some momentum on offense and stormed back into the game. They scored on a long touchdown pass from Priestley to R.J. English, then put up two more touchdowns on their next two drives. However, kicker Nick Lotz missed an extra point to keep the Bulls lead at 28-20, and then coach Walt Harris went for two following the Panthers' third straight touchdown. Bernard Brown knocked away a pass intended for English, and USF held on to their now-tenuous 28-26 lead.
Everyone knew that just running out the clock wasn't going to do. The Bulls needed more points. But soon after getting the ball back, USF was faced with a 3rd and 3 on their own 43-yard line. The call was a slant to Rubin.
Rubin went for 53 yards inside the Pittsburgh 5. Only one problem, though. USF's spread offense wasn't built to pound the ball in on the goal line. After a false start and then a defensive pass interference on Ferguson, the Bulls failed on three straight attempts to cross the goal line, including two consecutive sneak attempts by Blackwell. But Ferguson bailed out USF again with a pass interference penalty against Huey Whittaker on fourth and goal, and on USF's fourth straight play from the Panthers' 1-yard line, Blackwell finally snuck it in to make the score 35-26.
J.R. Reed made a spectacular interception on Pittsburgh's next offensive snap, and Maurice Jones recovered a Priestley fumble to seal the game. Although Priestley threw for 354 yards in relief of Rutherford, he was sacked six times, and the Panthers rushed for a grand total of 12 yards.
On offense, it was the Marquel Blackwell and DeAndrew Rubin show. Blackwell completed 37 of 65 passes (both USF records to this day) for 343 yards, with four TDs and one interception. He was not sacked in the game thanks to Hobbie's quick-passing game and the USF offensive line. Rubin caught 11 passes (still tied for a school record) for 144 yards. He scored the Bulls' first two touchdowns, and of course he had the biggest play of the game to help seal the win. It was only the second time USF had ever beaten an FBS opponent, and it was the first well-established FBS team to lose to USF.
The Bulls would go on to an 8-3 record in 2001, with
three four more wins over FBS teams -- North Texas, Connecticut, Utah State, and a 45-6 destruction of Houston on homecoming. Meanwhile, the Panthers went into a tailspin after what the Associated Press called "arguing the most stunning (loss) in Pitt's 111-year football history." They fell handily to Miami and Notre Dame, followed by back-to-back disasters against Syracuse (42-10) and Boston College (45-7). But then suddenly Pittsburgh rebounded and won its last six games, including a 38-7 beatdown of Virginia Tech and a win over N.C. State in the Tangerine Bowl, to finish 7-5.
USF's official site collected a bunch of news reports from this game and has them posted in the football stat archive. Definitely worth checking out to complete your trip down memory lane.