The late struggles that marked the Bulls' finishes in recent years continued this season when they won only two of their final seven regular-season games after starting out 5-0.
But with the 7-5 record, the Bulls qualified for their fifth consecutive postseason appearance, and they are headed to the International Bowl in Toronto with the intent of finishing on a high note.
"Playing in a bowl game is always special," Leavitt told the Tampa Tribune.
The extra practice time and game experience should pay dividends for all the Bulls returning in 2010, but especially for quarterback B.J. Daniels, who played like a typical redshirt freshman in taking over for injured senior Matt Grothe in third game of the season. Daniels was up some games, down for others, and that led to some frustrating moments.
In 12 games, Daniels ran for a team-high 798 yards but completed only 53 percent of his passes for 1,766 more. He had 12 touchdown passes against nine interceptions.
The game in the Rogers Centre, the 46,374-seat facility formerly known as the SkyDome, could be an entertaining one.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: How the offense goes depends pretty much on how QB B.J. Daniels performs. The redshirt freshman leads the Bulls in rushing but can be erratic in the passing game. The Bulls were middle-of-the-pack in the Big East in total offense, producing 362 yards a game with only 193 of that coming in passing (seventh in the league).
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Bulls were third in the league in total defense, giving up 329 yards a game. They led in pass defense, holding opponents to only 191 yards a game, but despite the presence of DE George Selvie, they produced only 25 sacks (ahead of only Louisville).
MATCHUP TO WATCH: South Florida LT Jamar Bass vs. Northern Illinois DE Jake Coffman -- Bass moved into the starting lineup for the last three games. In the bowl, he'll likely be up against Coffman, who was NIU's leader and third in the MAC with 7.5 sacks.
OTHER KEY MATCHUPS: South Florida QB B.J. Daniels vs. Northern Illinois' defensive front seven -- Daniels is most effective when he can get free to scramble if his receivers are covered. If he can get outside the pocket, he can make it a long day for the Huskies. The fact the game is played on a fast track indoors also should play in his favor.
South Florida DEs George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul vs. Northern Illinois OTs Trevor Olson and Panan Tense -- NIU has two first-team all Mid-American Conferences selections up front, but they are C Eddie Adamski and LG Jason Onyebuagu. Olson is a sophomore, Tense a junior, and they will have to take on the bulk of responsibility for handling USF's two outstanding rushers. Selvie has had a rather quiet season (3.5 sacks) but will want to make a big impression in his final game. Pierre-Paul (5.5 sacks) also will be looking to impress scouts enough to warrant an early entry into the NFL Draft.
South Florida FS Nate Allen vs. Northern Illinois QB Chandler Harnish -- Allen led the Bulls with four interceptions and could be the difference-maker in the secondary for his team. Chandler came off a knee injury and threw only five interceptions in the nine games he played in, but he leaned heavily on WR Landon Cox (45 catches) as his No. 1 receiver, which could give Allen the opportunity to cheat a bit toward Cox's side of the field.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm excited about Toronto. We've never been there. I'm excited for the kids. This is big stuff. We get to go and play indoors. I think it's exciting and pretty neat. Once we play this bowl, we will have experienced every bowl game the Big East offers except the BCS bowl. Hopefully that one is next." -- Coach Jim Leavitt, after learning of his team's invitation to the International Bowl.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL BREAKDOWN: South Florida vs. Northern Illinois, International Bowl, Jan. 2, Toronto -- USF will be making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance and is 2-2 in the previous four appearances. The Bulls will be going for consecutive postseason wins for the first time after beating Memphis in last season's St. Petersburg Bowl.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Carlton Mitchell -- Mitchell is USF's all-time leader in receiving after finishing the regular season with four catches for 49 yards against UConn to raise his total to 1,554 yards in three seasons. Hugh Smith had the old mark of 1,523. Mitchell has 612 receiving yards for the year, second to Smith's single-season mark of 661.
QB B.J. Daniels -- Daniels makes the offense go -- or stops it. The redshirt freshman usually is at the extreme end of the spectrum. After taking over as the starter when senior Matt Grothe went down with a knee injury in the third game of the season, Daniels finished as the team leader in rushing (798 yards) and threw for 1,766 in completing 53 percent of his passes.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul -- With offenses concentrating their early efforts on DE George Selvie, Pierre-Paul had a breakout season in his first year after transferring from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. He leads the Bulls with 14.5 tackles for loss (5.5 sacks).
FS Nate Allen -- Allen leads the Bulls in interceptions with four. He also was second on team in tackles with 79 to LB Kion Wilson's 98.
--RB Mike Ford was arrested after being stopped while driving a moped on campus on Dec. 10 and charged with driving without a valid license, a misdemeanor. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Ford was cited in September for not having a license with him, and the Tampa Tribune recounted similar incidents in March 2006 and February 2007. Coach Jim Leavitt told the Times that the incident would "probably not" keep Ford out of the bowl.
--USF is looking into applying for a sixth year of eligibility for RB Moise Plancher, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times. Plancher sustained a season-ending knee injury in the 2006 opener.