Has it really been five years?
The USF-Auburn game wasn't your classic crisp Ron Franklin-announced nighttime SEC beauty. USF took a field position-aided 14-3 lead in the first quarter. Auburn responded in the second quarter and threatened to take control of the game. A late drive gave AU a 17-14 lead at the half, and they would get the ball to start the third quarter, setting up a common September storyline: Top 25 Team Has Tough First Half But Easily Blows Out Plucky Non-Conference Underdog.
Then the nightmare started. For both teams.
It seemed innocuous at first. On Auburn's opening drive, quarterback Brandon Cox fumbled while trying to convert a 4th-and-1, giving USF the ball. USF then went on a long drive that stalled at the Auburn 20, and Delbert Alvarado missed a 37-yard field goal, leaving the game at 17-14 Auburn midway through the third. These ordinary misfortunes were only hints at the full-blown insanity that was to come.
After the jump, the Auburn game, and Jessie Hester's place in USF history.
After an exchange of punts, Auburn's Mario Fannin fumbled on the first play of the drive deep in Auburn territory, giving USF a golden opportunity to tie the game or even take the lead. USF moved the ball to the 14, but a long sack forced USF to try a 45-yard field goal with Alvarado, which badly missed wide left.
Starting from almost the same position, Fannin again fumbled on the first play of the drive, giving USF an identical opportunity. Once again, Grothe took a long sack, and Alvarado had to try a medium-range field goal. This time it was blocked, from 37 yards. (It would be Fannin's last carry of the night.)
And thus the third quarter ended: three fumbles, three missed field goals, and the same three-point margin that existed at halftime.
Facing a 3rd and 13 midway through the fourth, Jessie Hester -- the hero of this story, remember -- made a leaping catch over the middle to keep a drive alive. But like so many other USF drives this night, it stalled near the Auburn 20, forcing USF to send out Delbert Alvarado for his fourth field goal attempt. The kick was good, the game was tied, and the ESPN2 announcers cheered Alvarado like he'd won the Special Olympics. (Seriously, watch the play at 5:35 in the below clip.)
Auburn gave USF its best chance of the night (and that's really saying something) when future Dallas Cowboy Mike Jenkins picked off a Cox pass and looked like he would return it for a touchdown, but was angled out at the Auburn 3. But three USF run plays failed to advance the ball, and Alvarado missed a 21-yard field goal attempt, making him 1-for-5 on the night. Maybe the other misses were understandable, but USF now had a full-blown kicking problem on its hands. And that problem was put into sharp relief when Auburn's reliable kicker Wes Bynum easily converted a 46-yard field goal, giving Auburn a 20-17 lead.
But USF wasn't out of heroic plays, or future NFL players to make them. Jerome Murphy returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the Auburn 34 yard line, giving USF a real chance. Hester had another big third down catch, but it only moved the ball to the Auburn 2 yard line.
It was fourth and goal with one minute to play. And Jim Leavitt's course of action seemed obvious: go for it. His kicker was struggling badly, he was on the road as an underdog, his offense had been moving the ball, and he had a history of making well-calculated gambles. He wouldn't have faced a shred of criticism if he'd gone for it and lost. It was the classic "all in" situation: an opportunity to risk it all on one carefully chosen situation with a reasonable chance of success. It's what 99% of us would have done. It's what everyone expected.
But 99% of us aren't college football coaches, and I imagine this is the sort of thing that separates us from them. Jim Leavitt sent Delbert Alvarado, a converted punter who'd missed 4 of 5 field goals on the night, back out before a huge and hostile crowd to make a critical kick. From a tricky left hashmark angle, no less.
It was the most gut-wrenching 18-yard field goal attempt you'll ever watch. But it went through, by God, and the game went to overtime. USF won the toss, opted to defend first, and did so with vigor, limiting Auburn to a 39-yard field goal. USF got the ball for its turn, and we all know how it ended. (Notably, USF converted a 4th-and-inches rather than attempt a field goal that would tie the game. But that decision seemed more like confidence in the offense, which was moving the ball well, than a fear of sending Alvarado back out for a kick.)
The win set USF football on a new trajectory. The team leaped into the Top 25 the next week, and set up the home game with #5 West Virginia as the biggest in school history.
But what of Jessie Hester?
Hester was actually one of USF's all-time greats at wide receiver. His 54 catch/579 yard season in 2008 is one of the best individual seasons ever, and he holds many other places in the school record book. And of course, he had a great moment against Auburn.
But a defining trait of those mid-2000s Jim Leavitt era spread offenses was their propensity for rotating large numbers of players at the skill positions. They rotated 3-4 running backs and 5-6 wide receivers during a game, with little apparent regard for performance, player skills, or game situation. (Example: after USF acquired the ball on Auburn's 3 yard line, the third-and-goal run play went to fourth stringer Aston Samuels.) This annoyed fans, and made it difficult for players like Hester to stand out, even when they did.
In retrospect, it seems like USF had too many great wide receivers.
But on the other side of the coin, the 2007 team's biggest weakness was stopping bruising running backs. Ray Rice of Rutgers, Andre Dixon of Connecticut, and Jonathan Stewart of Oregon all gashed USF's defense in losses. Meanwhile, USF's top seven receivers had 37, 35, 34, 25, 23, 22, and 22 catches. This despite no major injuries or changes in gameplan. (If anything, the figures would have been closer had Amari Jackson not missed some games.)
The 2007 season is ripe for second-guessing. But it's easy to wonder where USF would be today if that team had divided 198 catches among 5 players instead of 7, and recruited two more defensive run-stuffers.
Here's a full set of USF higlights from the Auburn game, including many of the plays mentioned above.