The voice of USF Athletics, Jim Louk, will routinely put down his radio headset and pick up the pen to share his perspective on the history of USF Athletics.
Louk has been broadcasting games for 27 years and is the resident historian in the Athletics Department hallways... So this week he remembers the Bulls' first defeat of Pittsburgh in Another Signature Win For The Bulls.
The Bulls hopped a plane to Pittsburgh in September 2001 with a tough challenge ahead. USF was scheduled to open the season with three of their first four games on the road, and none of them would be easy. The toughest awaited them at the end of the plane ride.
It had already been a difficult start to the season. The prior week, USF had travelled to
DeKalb, Ill., to play Northern Illinois. The Huskies' stadium was located in the middle of a cornfield; a long bus ride from the airport in Rockford. The corn, which was served throughout the stadium that day, was great. The game wasn't, as the Bulls lost a 17-7 lead and fell 20-17.
That left USF 0-1 with a tough one ahead against the Pittsburgh Panthers. As a program, USF was still extraordinarily young. USF/Pittsburgh would be only the 46th game to be played in Bulls football history. The Bulls had already dipped into some big conferences by then, playing San Diego State in 1999 and Kentucky and Baylor in 2000, but they hadn't had any success. And never had they challenged a team as powerful as Pittsburgh. The Panthers had been picked to finish third in the Big East, and were sitting just outside of the national top 25.
Bulls fans are used to seeing the team slug it out with Pittsburgh every year now, but in 2001, this game was a huge, huge challenge for USF. The Bulls were a serious underdog, and they were in danger of starting a season 0-2 for the first time.
On top of everything else, the Panthers were showing off the brand new Heinz Field that year. This would be just the second Panther game in the new facility and the crowd would be in excess of 40,000.
Certainly nothing screams "BULLS WIN" in any of that.
But from the very first moments, it was clear that this game would be a special one in Bulls history. USF rolled the dice on the game's first play and showed they were far from intimidated.
On the opening kickoff, Santiago Gramatica sent a perfect pooch kick down the sideline, Maurice Tucker recovered, and the Bulls started inside the Pitt 30. Even though USF eventually turned the ball over on that drive, the Bulls made it immediately clear that they weren't backing down.
Later in the first quarter, the Bulls marched 54 yards for a touchdown as Marquel Blackwell hit DeAndrew Rubin from 14 yards out. After a defensive stop, the Bulls struck again, with Blackwell hitting Rubin for a 15 yard score. Unbelievably, the Bulls were not just winning, but dominating, leading 14-0 heading in to the second quarter. Pitt came back with a late second quarter score, but at the half it was still Bulls, 14-7.
Blackwell guided the offense to two scores in the third quarter with touchdown passes to Hugh Smith and Brian Fisher, and the Bulls held a 28-14 lead heading in to the final quarter. I remember still not believing it even as it unfolded. I'd like to say we were full of confidence in the broadcast booth, but in reality we were thinking about just how long that final 15 minutes of football might be.
The tension escalated quickly. Pittsburgh scored just four seconds into the fourth quarter and then missed the kick. 28-20 Bulls.
Midway through the quarter, another score for Pitt but the two point conversion failed. 28-26 Bulls with over seven minutes to play.
Momentum: Pittsburgh. Crowd: Frenzied. You could just feel that Pitt was going to find a way to wriggle out of the upset.
Then, in a day of big plays, came perhaps the most overlooked big play of the game. On third and three from the Bulls' 44, Blackwell hit Rubin again; this time for 53 yards to the Pitt three yard line. Blackwell eventually ran it in for six, leading to the score that would stand as the final, USF 35, Pittsburgh 26.
Those fortunate enough to be there that day won't forget the sight of Bulls players reaching into the stands to embrace the USF fans who had made the trip. On that sunny September day nine years ago in Pittsburgh, the Bulls program came of age.
It was a career day for more than one Bull. DeAndrew Rubin had 11 catches for 144 yards and another 127 yards on kick returns. Ryan Hearn caught seven balls. Kawika Mitchell had 10 tackles. Pitt was held to 12 yards rushing. USF's offensive line allowed no sacks. The truly amazing numbers belonged to Marquel Blackwell, who threw 65 passes, completing 37, for 343 yards and four touchdowns. He took over as the Bulls' all-time leading passer that day.
We came back to Tampa and had Sunday to read the newspaper headlines and drink it all in. The next day would be a big ticket selling day. The Bulls were news; they were front and center in the Tampa Bay media. The home opener against Southern Utah was the following Saturday and as we expected, the phones rang off the hook all day Monday.
Very soon afterward, we were announcing that there would be no Bulls football that weekend.
After 9/11, no one was in the mood for touchdowns, tackles and pass plays.
Eventually the Bulls took the field again in Memphis on Sept. 22. USF lost two of their next three before recovering to win six straight and finish the season 8-3. Southern Utah finally made it to Tampa on Oct. 20 and fell to USF by 30 points.
The Bulls never had quite the time of celebration they deserved from this game; there were far too many more important things going on in our country. Still, those three days directly before Sept. 11, 2001 bring back memories of a particularly happy and exciting time in Bulls football history, short lived though it was. We were coming off a landmark win, and we didn't know what the immediate future held in store.