Anyone who witnessed Thursday's 31-0 loss by the USF Bulls to the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers was most likely left baffled. This team was ranked 24th in the country? This team beat Florida State? This team has won a game?
The Bulls' mistakes were too numerous to begin to describe, but I will give it the old college try. It started out with an unnecessary penalty by Jerome Murphy on Rutgers' first drive, a late hit out of bounds. Coach Jim Leavitt pulled him aside and replaced him with freshman cornerback Kayvon Webster, giving Murphy some time to think about what he had done. Seven plays later, Rutgers had found the end zone, on a short pass where receiver Mohamed Sanu easily evaded Webster and found the flat and the goal line. Not so bad, right? This is how the West Virginia game started, right? Add in a muffed punt reception in which Kayvon Webster could easily have called for fair catch, but instead was immediately stripped and the ball recovered by the Scarlet Knights, resulting in a Rutgers possession in the red zone. Another muffed kick reception that the Bulls barely recovered in a thick scrum. Repeated soft tackling by the Bulls' defense with little to no wrapping up. Seven total first downs. A painful BJ Daniels fumble. Speaking of BJ, he threw a beautiful pass to Khaseem Greene, all alone in the end zone. It would have been great had Greene not been a Rutgers player. There were 7 total sacks, six penalties, four turnovers, two turtle doves, and a blocked punt recovery.
There were bright spots. Jerome Murphy snagged an easy pick, seemingly redeeming himself shortly after being benched for the aforementioned late hit. Rutgers missed a field goal and also blew the hold on another. But none of these opportunities were fruitful. None put any points on the board. Some didn't even net a first down. On a desperate fourth down conversion attempt, BJ Daniels was wrapped up and run backwards down the field more than thirty yards with no whistle... the referees seemed so dumbfounded by the spectacle of it all that they didn't feel the need to prolong the game any longer by stopping the clock. As the Rutgers defenders trotted off the field, one shook his head, laughing and looking up at the replay screen. He had finally realized the situation: that this game was a joke.
Chris Fowler summed it up towards the end of the third quarter by saying “USF isn't looking like a top 25 team; in fact, they don't even look like a top 75 team.” I echo his puzzlement. I have seen some tremendously bad performances in college football in my years. I remember traveling to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to see USF lose 27-6 in 2003. I have seen all three of the preceding losses to Rutgers, even last year's 49-16 thrashing at home, which actually had a worse margin of loss. Thursday's loss was far worse. I have seen perennial contenders like Nebraska, Florida, Texas, USC, or Miami trounce opponents by more than sixty points. But there is a difference between all of those losses and Thursday's. Those teams lost because they were overwhelmingly outplayed by offenses and defenses that they could not possibly have prepared for. This year, the Bulls simply played themselves out.
Craig James remarked “This team is already back in Tampa” after seeing a virtually uncontested Rutgers rushing touchdown by Martinek to put them up 31-0. Where was the heart? Where was the helmet-smashing viciousness? Where was the unparalleled 4.3 – 40 speed? USF's Offensive line outweighed Rutgers' defensive line by an average of fifty pounds, but it looked as if they were standing on broken segways. BJ Daniels rarely had enough time in the pocket to put a play together, and when he did, he foundered in pensive fear and either attempted a hopeless rush or succumbed to an inevitable sack. When, late in the fourth, USF placed red-shirt freshman quarterback Evan Landi in the game, Leavitt decided to give us one more gag and let the kid hand it off twice, then get tombstoned on the goal line (a play that was quite obviously a safety, but as previously mentioned, the referees didn't care enough to have to stop the clock and set up a free kick).
Thursday's shaming was truly a nightmare, almost as if each and every one of USF's players woke up from a nap at 6:00 and realized, “Oh snap, I have to play a football game in an hour!”; then, after falling out of bed, couldn't find their shoes, cut themselves shaving, ran into their ex-girlfriend, got kicked in the crotch by a stranger, and finally, after going to three different stadiums, found the correct one just in time to be thrown on the field by a snarling Leavitt. But this was not the case. They had a bye week beforehand to practice. They traveled to New Jersey for the game. They were coached relentlessly for a game that they had 'marked on their calendars'. So what is the excuse? How is this ever going to make sense?
I can only offer one possible answer: the bulls were cold. It may be hard for people from anywhere but Florida to understand, but I guarantee you that 90% of the players on this team have never seen snow. All but one of the defensive starters are from Florida. Some may have never experienced weather cooler than 40 degrees, at least not without an enormous jacket, and they certainly have not been asked to perform vigorous physical activity in said conditions. Last night's weather was in the mid 40s with a stiff 20 mile an hour wind, which, although difficult to play in, is certainly not unheard of. It's like they walked out of the tunnel and said “No way. Nope. It is freezing out here. I'm heading back to the locker room. Call it off.”
One commentator noted that this game was not only bad for USF, but bad for the Big East. A conference that is currently struggling to establish legitimacy needs more than two teams that are contenders, and USF did everything it could to deny the conference that claim. The commentators ruminated on the reasons why the Big East may not have motivation to do well, citing poor bowl tie-ins and few perennial contenders as possible conclusions. But does a team that played as poorly as USF did Thursday night deserve a better bowl than the PapaJohn's.com Pizza Delivery Boy Bowl? Or the St. Petersburg Bowl, presented by Strap-Perfect? Can they make the Snuggie Bowl with a win over Louisville?
One can only hope, going forward, that USF will not suffer another loss as astonishing as Thursday's. The season is not over. A bowl game is within their reach. Louisville, Miami, and Uconn (an away game that will without question be in cold weather) lie ahead. The Bulls owe the fans, and themselves, a fair performance. Thursday night's improv comedy show is over... and let me tell you, the Hurricanes won't find a similar routine funny.