South Florida billed Friday night's game with West Virginia as the biggest in its brief football history. Now, the Bulls can add the game to a growing list of impressive Top 25 victories. The much-vaunted Mountaineer offense committed five turnovers, and South Florida's offense did just enough en route to a 21-13 victory over West Virginia in front of a national television audience and sold out Raymond James Stadium.
The offensive woes for Pat White and company began early, and kept going even after White had been knocked out of the game late in the second quarter with a bruised thigh. During his nearly two quarters of action, White was 12-18 for 100 yards, zero touchdowns, and one very costly interception. On third down and seven from the Mountaineer 28, White rolled to his right and looked to have had an open receiver downfield. Before he could get the throw off, defensive end Jarriett Buie got just enough of White's shoulder pads to greatly impact the attempted throw. Bulls linebacker Ben Moffitt was waiting on the errant pass, and rumbled 28 yards for USF's first points of the game. It was the second straight year that USF got on the board early with a defensive touchdown, which was fitting for a game ironically similar to the stinkfest that took place in Morgantown a year ago.
"I stepped up and he threw it right to me," Moffitt said after the year. "It was easy. I just took off and had a free shot at the end zone, and I took it."
In reality, the Mountaineer defense played well enough to win the game…with the exception of one humongous play that swung momentum even more in favor of the green-clad hosts. Sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe pulled a Houdini against Mountaineer pressure, rolled towards the sideline, and found a completely uncovered Carlton Mitchell for the easiest 55-yard touchdown pass in the history of football.
South Florida's defense fed off of the momentum created by big play, and continued to make big plays itself. After White began to develop a rhythm in the passing game with three consecutive completions, USF's Jerome Murphy upended freshman receiver Brandon Hogan at the 30 yardline, popping the ball straight up into the air. In yet another indication of everything going the Bulls way, the ball bounced right into the waiting arms of cornerback Nate Allen, who sprinted 44 yards down the sideline before White made a touchdown-saving tackle.
Though the Mountaineer defense again came through with a turnover of their own, South Florida continued to make more plays in what was – in all reality – a very poor first half for both offenses.
White left the game on West Virginia's final drive of the first half after taking a helmet to the thigh, but unfortunately for the Mountaineers the offense continued to look more like the Keystone Cops than what had been called the nation's most explosive offense during the season's first four weeks. A faulty snap on third down and goal from the USF two resulted in a 17-yard loss, and West Virginia had to settle for a Pat McAfee field goal to pull within 14-3 at the break.
South Florida's finest offensive drive came at the outset of the third quarter, when the Bulls put together and impressive 13 play, 74-yard drive that culminated with Jamar Taylor's 19-yard touchdown run that likely sealed the fate of the formerly fifth-rated Mountaineers.
Brown led the Mountaineers to another field goal drive in the third quarter, but the bullish USF defense continued to out-physical West Virginia all over the field. For the second straight year, Wally Burham's defensive gameplan put the speedy Bull defenders in position to make plays in space against West Virginia's talented offense.
Offensively, West Virginia got it together to mount a bit of a fourth quarter comeback, with Brown making plays via air and ground, and ultimately finding Darius Reynaud for a nine-yard touchdown just inside the six minute mark of the fourth quarter.
USF coach Jim Leavitt opted to play it more conservative than a talk radio host, and did little more than have Grothe handoff following West Virginia's touchdown. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin, though, came on Delbert Alvardo's 57-yard punt that drove return man Vaughn Rivers deeper than he anticipated, and gave the Mountaineers approximately 20 more yards of field to work with.
Mountaineer fans had a glimmer of hope following Brown's 27-yard run on fourth down that moved the Mountaineers into USF territory. The sophomore from Palm Beach could not pull another rabbit out of his hat, though, as his fourth down pass attempt to Wes Lyons fell incomplete.
With the game essentially over, the celebration began for South Florida. For West Virginia, the loss is the first time it has dropped consecutive games to a single Big East opponent since a string of losses to Miami from 1998-2003.
"I thought it would be a pretty good game," said USF head coach Jim Leavitt. "I thought the match-up was there. I thought we had a real good shot."
"The kids played hard, but badly executed offensively," said Mountaineer head coach Rich Rodriguez, now 1-2 against the Bulls who also hold the distinction of being the only Big East team with a winning record against Rodriguez. "It's about as bad as you can play. I'm very disappointed because I thought we had a good week of practice."
Brown finished 12-20 for 149 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. He was also the team's leading rusher with 15 carries for 61 yards.
Obviously the most important numbers were those that stayed on the scoreboard well after the team's had left, and South Florida's student body reached nirvana at midfield. One loss, though, does not a season make.
"I'm disappointed, but it's a long season and certainly the conference race is not over yet," noted Rodriguez. "We're just behind a little bit, but we'll get back to work on Sunday."
Say all you want about West Virginia's performance. At the end of the day, this night belonged to South Florida. For the second straight year, the Bulls found a way to beat a team that has seen losses few and far between over the past three seasons, and in the process shattered dreams of an ever-elusive national championship.