Biggest Battle In The East

By Carolyn Braff - September 28, 2007

This is the game South Florida has been waiting for. Eleven years after playing their first collegiate football game (then at the I-AA level), USF has done everything anyone has asked them to do and with a 3-0 record that includes an upset win over Auburn, the Bulls are firmly in position to stop being a spoiler and start becoming a mainstay of the national scene. No. 18 USF takes on No. 5 West Virginia tonight in a Big East matchup with enormous implications. And considering USF knocked off the Mountaineers 24-19 last year, at West Virginia, don't expect that Heisman Trophy duo to run all over these Bulls without a fight.

Tampa is ready for its night in the limelight. And apparently, the limelight has been prepared for the occasion. The downtown Tampa skyline will be illuminated in green and gold lights tonight, a Bulls flag hangs proudly from the city municipal building and Raymond James Stadium will be rocking with a 65,857-fan sellout crowd. The student section has exactly 12,501 seats, all of which were filled after a tent-city overnight camping experience earlier this week, and that extra seat makes the section exactly one seat larger than West Virginia's, so that USF can boast the biggest student section in the Big East.

But that's not the title the Bulls want to walk away with at the end of the night.

If USF does succeed in stopping running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White, which will be easier with sophomore defensive end George Selvie still leading the nation in sacks and the defense ranking No. 7 in the country, a win tonight would unquestionably elevate the Bulls in the national standings and most likely turn their Oct. 18 matchup with Rutgers into a battle for the Big East championship. With a two-loss Louisville team still struggling to find answers on defense, USF has a huge opportunity tonight to make program history and further prove that their uncanny ability to knock off heavyweights is no fluke.

But the talented tandem of Slaton and White are planning to use the national spotlight to their advantage, too. A big performance at USF would certainly help their respective bids for the Heisman Trophy, and rest assured that both playmakers will be out for revenge against a team that allowed them a combined 60 rushing yards last year.

Perhaps also out for revenge are USF-turned-West Virginia assistant coaches Rod Smith and Greg Frey, both of whom left for West Virginia in the spring. Frey knows every hair on the Bulls' hide, so to speak, having worked alongside head coach Jim Leavitt since Day 1 of USF football. The Mountaineers' new offensive line coach coached both the offensive and defensive lines at points during his 11-year career in Tampa.

Smith's departure was undoubtedly a bit easier to take, as the quarterbacks coach was a member of West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez' original staff in 2001 before spending six seasons at USF as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, among other titles.

If USF is going to complete the upset tonight, everyone is going to have to play a stellar game. The star sophomores are going to have to do their parts: Selvie in the sacks department (he's got 8.5 through three games), Matt Grothe in the passing department (the QB is completing 60.4 percent of his passes with four TDs and 0 interceptions) and safety Nate Allen in the turnover department (he's had a hand in four so far).

"You've got to take advantage," Leavitt said this week. "Every play is that big. Everybody is going to play with emotion. They beat us two years ago, then we beat them last year. We just have to play."

The seniors are certainly going to have to play, especially on defense. West Viriginia ranks 10th in the nation in total offense and second in rushing offense, averaging more than 7 yards per carry. Senior linebacker Ben Moffit will be captaining the nation's 13th-ranked rushing defense, but will have to run a tight ship to stop the speedy one-two punch of Slaton and White. Senior cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams will also have to lend a hand in run stoppage while finding a way to mark the Mountaineers' fleet-footed pass catchers.

Just how big is this game?

"The biggest game of our lives," Selvie said simply. "And everybody wants to be a part of it. It's great. Let's go."

Posted by Carolyn Braff at 11:58 AM on September 28, 2007

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