2002 USF Bulls

The 2002 season would be South Florida's last year as a Division I-A independent. Head coach Jim Leavitt talked about the 2002 schedule, which featured nine I-A opponents. "This is a very aggressive schedule. We're playing some of the best teams in the country. I'm sure we're going to get picked not to win too many of them and that's probably right because we have to earn our respect and we shouldn't get picked to beat very many people. We just have to go out and deal with it. We have a chance to be a pretty decent football team. We do have a lot of talent."

photo On August 29, the season opened against Florida Atlantic. The game was the first time the Bulls played another Florida school and the first Thursday night home game. Howard Schnellenberger, who won a national championship at Miami, was the head coach for FAU. The Division I-AA Owls football program was in its second year. Marquel Blackwell (27 of 39 for 263 yards with 2 TD) threw a touchdown pass and Santiago Gramatica kicked a field goal, before there was another first in USF history. The first weather delay occurred with just seconds left in the first quarter, as lightning stopped play for 45 minutes. Clenton Crossley scored two first half touchdowns, one run and one catch, and the Bulls lead 20-3 at the half. Special teams blocked a punt and DeAndrew Rubin returned another punt 56 yards for a score. Gramatica was 3 for 3 on field goals and converted all six PATs. Defensively, the Bulls set team records by holding FAU to a negative 36 yards rushing and sacking the quarterback seven times. Maurice Jones, a junior linebacker from Bradenton Booker High School, and Tavares Jurineack, a senior defensive tackle from Orlando Cypress Creek High School, each recorded two sacks. Freshman David Mullins, out of Jacksonville Bolles High School, saw his first action at quarterback late in the game and Billy Henderson, a freshman running back from Pinellas Park High School, scored his first touchdown with less than a minute left. USF was flagged for fifty yards in penalties in the first quarter and finished with a dozen infractions for 105 yards. Jim Leavitt was not entirely satisfied with the effort. "We need to move the ball better. Also the defense has to play with a lot more emotion. We just kind of played the game." He quickly added, "We did win 51-10." Schnellenberger remarked, "USF was even better than I anticipated them being."

photo A Clenton Crossley touchdown run was the only first half score when Northern Illinois came to Tampa. Huskies quarterback Josh Haldi (10 of 26 for 157 yards) was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone and USF recorded the first safety in school history. Marquel Blackwell found DeAndrew Rubin along the sideline for a USF record 95 yard touchdown pass and the Bulls lead 16-0 after three quarters. Rubin caught another short touchdown pass, returned a punt 55 yards for a score and the rout was on. Rubin finished the night with 126 yards on four receptions, Hugh Smith caught ten passes for 70 yards and Blackwell (22 of 34 for 273 yards) had the two TD passes. USF was flagged ten times for 60 yards. The defense forced six fumbles, of which NIU lost two, and returned an interception for a score. The Huskies avoided the shutout on the game's final play, as the Bulls won 37-6. Jim Leavitt talked about the difference in the game, "It was a DeAndrew Rubin night."

South Florida took an eight game winning streak, the nation's second longest, into War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. The Bulls went up against SEC member Arkansas and a crowd of 55,817. It was over quickly, as the Razorbacks lead 35-0 by half time. It was the most points USF had allowed in a half and the program's largest deficit at the intermission. Two Arkansas quarterbacks, Matt Jones (9 of 12 for 148 yards and 2 TD) and Travaris Jackson (8 of 11 for 78 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT), moved the ball and George Wilson caught two TD passes. Marquel Blackwell (12 of 33 with an INT) passed for just 80 yards and the Bulls were out gained 547 to 150 in total yardage. USF was penalized ten times for 101 yards, lost one of four fumbles and the team's longest play from scrimmage was 18 yards. Devin Sanderson was forced to punt nine times, but he did get a favorable roll for a school record 72 yard punt. Santiago Gramatica kicked a 32 yard field goal with 38 seconds left to avoid the first shutout in USF history. The 42-3 defeat, a 39 point margin, was the worst lost in school history. Jim Leavitt talked after the game. "We ran into a team that obviously is a lot better than us. They beat the dog out of us."

photo The next game in Norman, Oklahoma was the first time USF appeared on National television. The game against the number two ranked Sooners, the highest ranked opponent the team had played, was broadcast on the TBS cable network. It was also the largest crowd the Bulls had played in front of with 74,432 at Memorial Stadium. The game did feature a couple of interesting story lines. USF Athletic Director Lee Roy Selmon played collegiately at Oklahoma and current OU head coach Bob Stoops was co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State with USF head coach Jim Leavitt. After a scoreless first quarter, it looked as if the Bulls had scored the game's first touchdown. A penalty on the option pass, USF was flagged fifteen times for 124 yards, erased that score. Two plays later, Antonio Perkins returned a punt 82 yards for an Oklahoma touchdown. It was the first time an opponent had returned a punt for a TD against the Bulls. Fumbles on next two drives, the second time after USF had driven to the Sooners 18 yard line, helped Oklahoma stretch the lead. Two touchdown passes by Nate Hybi (19 of 30 for 177 yards) and the home team lead 21-0 at the half. Marquel Blackwell (19 of 37 for 167 yards with 1 INT) and the Bulls were able to move the ball and finished with the advantage in total yards (328-239) and first downs (18-15). The turnovers hurt and USF had to punt a dozen times. The defense put in a strong effort, lead by a pair of sacks by Kawika Mitchell, and OU was forced to punt ten times. South Florida trailed 31-0, before Ronnie Banks (5 of 7 for 100 yards) threw two touchdown passes in final two minutes. Leavitt talked about losing 31-14 to the Big 12 Conference team. "We didn't come here to keep it close or get a moral victory. We came here to win. I thought our effort was good, and we were pretty well focused, but we did a lot of dumb things."

The third straight road game took place at Fouts Field in Denton, Texas. On their opening possession, South Florida marched down the field with Marquel Blackwell hitting Huey Whittaker for an early 7-0 lead. Santiago Gramatica kicked the score to 10-0, before a North Texas touchdown made it 10-7 at the half. The Mean Green added a field goal and the game was tied after three quarters. Blackwell (29 of 47 for 271 yards with an INT) and Chris Iskra hooked up on a 44 yard pass play and the Bulls were back in front. A 2 yard Quinton Callum scoring run gave USF a two touchdown lead, but North Texas scored their own TD just over a minute later and it took some fourth quarter heroics by the Bulls defense to preserve the victory. Four of the five North Texas turnovers came in the final period. Quarterback Andrew Smith (8 of 28 for 114 yards with 1 TD) was intercepted three times in that quarter. Junior strong safety Kevin Verpaele, out of Merritt Island High School, came up with two of the picks. USF out gained the Mean Green in total yards 432 to 198, however, the Bulls were also penalized a team record tying seventeen times for 137 yards. "I don't want to hear all about the penalties and mistakes," Jim Leavitt said after the game. "There were a million of them and I know it. There is no excuse for it all. We won the game. Years from now they won't be talking about how we did it."

photo South Florida returned home and a 50 yard punt return by DeAndrew Rubin gave the Bulls the ball at the Southern Miss 19 yard line. While they took an early 3-0 lead, USF kept settling for field goals and the Golden Eagles lead 13-9 going into the final quarter. Derrick Nix rushed for 126 yards to pace the USM offense. Marquel Blackwell (20 of 37 for 246 yards) threw some key passes and defensive end Shurron Pierson lead the defense with a school record four sacks. Rubin returned a fourth quarter punt 39 yards to set the Bulls up at the USM 28 yard line. Three plays later, Hugh Smith ran 11 yards on the reverse and USF was out in front. Southern Miss had the ball at their own 1 yard line with 1:47 left and marched down the field into position to try a game tying field goal. As time ran out, Curt Jones missed a 44 yard field goal and Raymond James Stadium went wild. The Bulls had defeated one of the best teams in Conference USA 16-13. Kawika Mitchell talked about how USM was one of the schools that thought USF should wait until 2003 to join the conference. "Southern Miss didn't want us in Conference USA because they didn't want quantity, they wanted quality. I think they saw some quality tonight."

Another game against a future Conference foe took place at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina and the East Carolina Pirates held a 10-3 second quarter advantage. Hugh Smith (6 receptions for 118 yards) hauled in a 43 yard touchdown pass and Ron Hemingway, a junior defensive back from St. Petersburg High School, scooped up a fumble in the end zone for a score. The Bulls lead at the half 15-10, then East Carolina went up 17-15 on the first possession of the second half. Art Brown finished with 290 total yards on the afternoon. The ECU running back had 188 yards on 30 carries, caught six passes for 102 yards and scored two touchdowns. USF would score the next five times they had the ball, including four straight touchdowns. The star of the game was Marquel Blackwell (19 of 33) who threw for 321 yards and a school record five touchdowns. Vince Brewer caught two short TD passes and Santiago Gramatica kicked a personal best 41 yard field goal to close out the scoring. Even though East Carolina generated 510 total yards on 100 plays, and had a 31- 15 advantage in first downs, the Bulls defense came up with big plays. ECU quarterback Paul Troth (25 of 46 for 339 yards with 3 TDs) was intercepted twice and sacked three times. Shurron Pierson recorded two sacks, an interception and forced the fumble recovered for a score. The home team had four turnovers, while the Bulls did not turn the ball over. USF was penalized eleven times for 110 yards in the 46-30 victory. It was the Bulls first road win against a C-USA opponent and a school record for most points scored on road. Blackwell said afterwards, "We're undefeated in conference."

South Florida scored just about every way imaginable against Charleston Southern. Marquel Blackwell (14 of 31 for 198 yards) threw a touchdown pass to Hugh Smith and the Bulls were up 7-0. By the time the night was over, Blackwell had set a school record for most consecutive pass attempts without an interception (123) and ran for a TD. Smith finished with eight receptions for 100 yards. Kawika Mitchell rumbled 56 yards on a fake punt for his first career touchdown, J.R. Reed returned an interception for a score and the Bulls were up 28-0 at the half. DeAndrew Rubin had an 82 yard kickoff return for a score and Santiago Gramatica added a few field goals. The USF defense dominated. The Buccaneers finished with no rushing yards and just 76 passing yards. By contrast, the Bulls had 525 total yards and an 25-4 advantage in first downs. Charleston Southern turned the ball over five times, including three interceptions. About the only highlight for the visitors was a 98 yard kickoff return by Mike Washington, the longest ever allowed by USF, for the Buccaneers only score. About the only negative for the Bulls were the fifteen penalties for 145 yards. South Florida won easily 56-6.

photo The first quarter was scoreless in South Florida's homecoming game against Memphis, then Hugh Smith caught a pair of touchdown passes and the Bulls were out in front 14-0. Smith also set a new team record for receptions in a season and became the school's leader in career receiving yards. Marquel Blackwell (24 of 36 for 246 yards) threw three TD passes and ran for a another, as USF scored on four straight second quarter possessions to take a 28-7 lead at the intermission. While Maurice Jones and Tim Jones, a sophomore from Lakeland Kathleen High School, each recorded two sacks, Memphis quarterback Danny Wimprine had an outstanding night. Wimprine (32 of 53 with 1 TD and 2 INTs) threw for 314 yards, ran for a touchdown and caught a pass for a score on the option pass. The Tigers mounted a comeback in the second half and USF penalties kept a couple of Memphis drives alive. Each team was flagged ten times with a key infraction coming as time expired. The Bulls lead 31-28, when an offensive interference penalty erased a Memphis touchdown. The Bulls accepted the penalty and, since there was no time left on the clock, the Tigers had one last shot with an un-timed down. J.R. Reed intercepted a Wimprine pass in the end zone to preserve the victory. Jim Leavitt said after the game, "I'm exhausted."

photo With a number twenty-five ranking in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, Bowling Green was the first ranked Division I-A team to play USF in Tampa. The Falcons also had the third highest scoring offense in the nation. Quarterback Josh Harris (10 of 24 for 84 yards with 1 INT) ran for a touchdown and Bowling Green had a 7-0 lead after three minutes. The Bulls answered quickly, as Marquel Blackwell (21 of 40 for 220 yards) hit Chris Iskra on a 42 yard scoring pass. Bowling Green snapped the ball out of the end zone for a safety and USF was up for good. DeJaun Green ran for his first TD with the Bulls, Clenton Crossley ran for another score and South Florida was up 23-7 at the half. A pair of Santiago Gramatica field goals were the only second half scoring in a 29-7 USF victory. Blackwell talked about the school's first victory over a ranked team, "This has got to be our biggest win. You tell everyone in the country to keep underestimating us." Jim Leavitt commented, "It was truly remarkable to hold them to seven points." The next day, when USF showed up in both major polls in the "Others Receiving Votes" category for the first time, the head coach remarked, "I always felt we were a decent team. I don't need the polls to tell me that."

The season finale took place at Robertson Stadium in Houston. Two Marquel Blackwell touchdown runs gave South Florida a 14-0 lead over the Cougars after one quarter. The score stayed that way until half time, before the Bulls pulled away. Blackwell (23 of 36 for 305 yards) threw for two scores and ran one in for the third time on the afternoon, as USF took a 32-0 advantage. The Bulls defense intercepted a team record seven passes with J.R. Reed and John Miller, a senior defensive back from Apopka Lake Bentley High School, each making two picks. USF also sacked Houston QB Nick Eddy (25 of 49 for 358 yards with 2 TDs) four times. Houston scored a couple of late touchdowns, both by receiver Brandon Middleton (5 catches for 199 yards), and the final score was 32-14. The Bulls were penalized ten times for 104 yards, but Jim Leavitt said, "The defense was simply tremendous."

Watch Party
On Friday, December 6, 2002, USF players gathered at Lee Roy Selmon’s Restaurant in Tampa to see if the Bulls would be headed to the Hawaii Bowl. If East Carolina defeated Cincinnati, an ECU win would photoprevent the Bearcats from becoming bowl eligible, USF would play in the school’s first bowl game on Christmas Day. The Bulls were Pirates fans for a night and Marquel Blackwell commented, "I was just telling Coach Leavitt, 'A few weeks ago we were game-planning to beat East Carolina.‘ Now, we're rooting for them."

The game was close until the fourth quarter. East Carolina scored first on a field goal, however Cincinnati lead 14-6 at the half. ECU scored, but a failed two point conversion made the score 14-12. The teams traded touchdowns and it was 28-26 early in the fourth quarter. Two more Cincinnati scores and the final was 42-26.

photo At 9-2, South Florida set the school record for victories and winning percentage (.818). For the third straight year, the Bulls were undefeated at home and had won the last nineteen games played in Tampa. This was also the first season USF had a winning record on the road (3-2). They were fourth in the "Others Receiving Votes" category of the final regular season AP poll and Jim Leavitt said of USF going to a bowl game "It should be a no-brainer." Independent status and a lack of tradition hurt the Bulls. They actually received a conditional bid from the Hawaii Bowl, if East Carolina defeated Cincinnati in the C-USA finale, but that did not happen. Leavitt said of the bowl snub, "It's a travesty." He also described a bowl system that allowed the games to break their own rules on conference affiliations as "An absolute joke."

When speaking of individual achievements during the 2002 season, you have to start with Marquel Blackwell. He finished with just three interceptions on the year and went the last six games without a pick. Blackwell was not intercepted in his last 235 pass attempts, which was the second best in NCAA history behind Trent Dilfer's record 271 at Fresno State. Hugh Smith had a team record 62 catches for a school record 661 yards and also became USF's career leader with 1,523 receiving yards. Kawika Mitchell broke his own record for tackles (115) and became the school's career leader in that category (364). J.R. Reed set a new record with six interceptions and also became the career leader with eleven picks. Shurron Pierson lead team with eight sacks and was also the career leader with eighteen sacks.

The Bulls had a senior class of fourteen players, including ten starters. Marquel Blackwell and DeAndrew Rubin, who hooked up a school record fourteen times on touchdown passes, would no longer wear the green and gold. Blackwell not only held virtually every USF passing record, but was the school's leader in career rushing touchdowns (20). Other seniors who made a major impact at South Florida included Hugh Smith, Greg Walls, Devin Sanderson, Maurice Tucker, Ryan Hearn and Chris Daley. Also moving on was Kawika Mitchell, the heart of the USF defense over the last couple of years. Shurron Pierson became the first player in school history to leave the program before his senior season and declare himself eligible for the NFL draft. Mitchell talked about a season were the Bulls went 4-0 against C-USA opponents. "We set the standard for the people that follow us. In our eyes, we're Conference USA champions."

Related Links
2002 USF Bulls Results
2002 USF Bulls Statistics

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