On Moral Victories

Al Messerschmidt - Getty Images

The FSU game, a look at USF football's other moral victories over the years, and what it all means going forward.

In the postgame haiku, I called the 30-17 loss to Florida State a moral victory, because that's exactly what it felt like.

It was the sort of game you see a lot in college football. The underdog keeps the score close, and occasionally rises to the level of their opponent, but never really looks like they could pull off the win. Then after the game, the underdog tries to take positives from it.

Later, I realized something: USF football never has games like that. In what is now fifteen and a half seasons of football, I can only think of a handful of games where USF football looked competitive but outclassed, and could find something positive in the loss. They were:

  • Georgia Southern (L 24-23, 1997). "Leavitt Went For Two." In USF's up-and-down inaugural season, they hosted a I-AA power team in GSU, and scored a late touchdown to pull within 24-23. USF went for the two-point conversion and what would have been a shocking win, but a pass play was broken up. USF recovered the onside kick, but, prophetically, it was wiped out by an illegal formation penalty. After another close game in 1998, GSU cancelled the last two games of the series. Most USF fans who remember that era think we still owe Georgia Southern an ass-whooping. I'm one of them.
  • Oklahoma (L 31-14, 2002). It was USF's first nationally televised game (on TNT), Oklahoma warmly welcomed back Lee Roy Selmon, the OU band played the Bulls' fight song, and the Sooners gave USF a lesson in how physical big-time college football is. Marquel Blackwell was visibly pounded by the Oklahoma defense, but stayed in the game and tacked on a couple consolation scores. (Unlike, say, Pat White.) Also noteworthy is that USF had been blown out 42-3 by Arkansas the previous week; this result was an improvement. USF would not lose another game that season, going 9-2 as a I-A independent.
  • Penn State (L 23-13, 2005). The game that started the Courtney Denson era, and ended it ten minutes later when he was yanked for Pat Julmiste. Julmiste was only marginally better, but USF played hard, and turned an early 17-0 deficit into a respectable 23-13 loss to the eventual Big Ten champions. Penn State would later vacate this win due to Jerry Sandusky.
  • North Carolina State (L 14-0, 2005 Meineke Car Care Bowl). You have to remember the context of this one. It was USF's first season as a BCS school; they were in the Big East championship race until the Voodoo Five fiasco at UConn; they backed into their first ever bowl game; and the team had no offense to speak of. And NC State did have a defense to speak of; eight players from that game would be chosen in the NFL Draft, including overall #1 Mario Williams and two other first-round picks. USF was shut out for the first time in school history.

And that's about it. Moral victories are anathema to USF football. Yes, every football team says they hate moral victories, but USF actually did something about it. From day one, Jim Leavitt instilled in the program the attitude that every game was winnable. USF players showed genuine dejection over every loss. Post-game "are you proud of the effort" questions were met with "we came to win" rejoinders, no matter how crazy they sounded. Check out this recap of USF's 2000 trip to Kentucky, who was USF's second ever I-A opponent, and a decent SEC team at the time. Imagine, for example, South Alabama having that attitude about their recent loss to Mississippi State.

And USF's fans bought into this as well. To this day, we have a well-bred disdain for moral victories, no matter how valiant the effort or how mighty the foe. It's in our DNA. And this moment is one of our 46 chromosomes:

That, friends, is the difference between a victory and a moral victory.

The 2001 Pittsburgh game had "moral victory" written all over it. USF was a huge underdog (five points more than they were against Florida State). The Bulls ran out to a shocking 28-7 lead, and then saw Pitt close to within 28-26. In the fourth quarter, USF faced a crucial 3rd-and-3 near midfield against an inspired Pitt defense. Certainly, this was the end. Momentum had shifted. There would be a defensive stop, and then a punt, and just enough time left for a leisurely game-winning drive. "Plucky little underdog gets moral victory" headlines were being written all across America, like they were for a hundred games just like this one.

Instead, RUBIN ON THE CATCH, RUBIN ON THE RUN happened. One simple slant pass erased all momentum, convinced Pittsburgh that they were beaten, sent their fans to the exits, and proved that Jim Leavitt was right: South Florida really could beat any team they faced.

Now, let's compare that play to two moments in the Florida State game.

Midway through the third quarter. FSU led only 13-10. USF had kept the powerful Seminoles offense under control throughout, and had just scored a touchdown off a blocked punt. Momentum was swinging to the green and gold. The game was shaping up as a hard-fought defensive struggle, conditions favorable to USF. Instead, this happened:

1st and 10 at FSU 37
EJ Manuel pass complete to Rashad Greene for 32 yards to the SFla 31 for a 1ST down.

Then, after the Seminoles scored on that drive to go up 20-10, and USF was close to getting the ball back, this happened:

3rd and 11 at FSU 26
EJ Manuel pass complete to Kenny Shaw for 47 yards to the SFla 27 for a 1ST down.

I'll spare you the videos, since I'm sure it's fresh in your minds. But each time USF's defense could have made this an even game with a stop, Florida State's offense made a big play to reassert control of the proceedings. Just like DeAndrew Rubin at Pittsburgh eleven years ago.

In our internal discussion this week, the other V5 editors and I talked about the baseball concept of leverage: the notion that certain game situations contribute disproportionately to who ultimately wins the game. I believe that this concept not only exists in football, but that it's pervasive. Most football games are even battles, decided by two or three key moments. USF won the key moments at Pittsburgh, but lost them against FSU (and Rutgers, but that's another post). Rather than turn this into a sabermetrics discussion, let's look at this a different way.

Skip Holtz has now been the head coach of USF football for two and a half seasons. That's long enough to see his imprint on the program. And I believe we're seeing it, in the form of game results we've never seen before. USF has never lost to a lower-tier program like Ball State, and only rarely taken a competitive loss to a higher-tier program like Florida State. The last two weeks have shown us a new paradigm.

But that might not be a bad thing. Under Leavitt, the Bulls won big non-conference games, but struggled in Big East play. Skip Holtz has the opportunity to do the opposite: struggle in non-league play, but use those results to get the team ready for Big East play. In fact, I think the defining question of the Skip Holtz era is upon us. And it is: can you challenge for a Big East title, or at least produce a decent Big East record? The slate is still clean for those goals.

After the Florida State game, Holtz said "This team knows what it's capable of doing. We just have to go out and play with that same amount of passion each and every week". If that's true, then this senior-laden team should be able to sweep Temple, Syracuse, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh. None of those teams looks capable enough to stay within 30 points of Florida State, much less 13. Those wins alone would get the Bulls to 4-3 in the Big East and 6-6 overall, which would assure a return to bowl season. It would also match USF's best Big East record ever, and be the first winning season in conference play since 2007. Failing that, a road win over Louisville, Cincinnati, or Miami would keep the Bulls on task... and USF actually swept those three road games last time in 2010. Under Skip Holtz.

And let's be fair to Holtz. USF hasn't lost the wherewithal to win big games since he took over. USF had never won at Cincinnati or Louisville, or beaten Miami at all, until 2010. Holtz also led wins over Clemson in the 2010 Meineke Bowl, Notre Dame in 2011, and Nevada this season. That's too many to be a coincidence.

But I think the challenge is clear: Skip Holtz needs to get USF to a bowl game. At the very least. To do so would require a level of success in conference games we haven't seen in awhile. USF is only 0-1 in conference play. Will the team see this for the tabula rasa it is, or once again go .500 against beatable opponents? The former could make this the best Big East season ever -- maybe even a conference championship. The latter would get the "hot seat" talk starting entering Holtz's fourth year.

But our destiny is still ahead of us.

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