This Saturday will be the third meeting between USF and Florida Atlantic. The first came in 2002, when FAU was still a I-AA team. Marquel Blackwell was running the show and it ended up being your garden variety season-opening romp, 51-10.
The second game, in 2007, was a lot closer. It was one of the most exasperating USF wins I can ever remember watching. I hate playing road games in places where there is seemingly no reason for you to be there, and this was a prime example. This was the biggest trap game in school history -- the week after the West Virginia win, and the week before a home game against UCF and another sellout crowd. The Bulls had to go down to Fort Lauderdale and play in FAU's small, borrowed stadium, and to lull them even further to sleep, something like half the crowd ended up being USF fans who ate up all the leftover tickets months in advance. Then on top of all that, like any lower-tier school with a lot of kids in your recruiting footprint and a chip on their shoulder would be, FAU was fired up and highly motivated for the game, while the Bulls… were not.
It had all the makings of a disaster, and before I went back and really looked hard at the box score and the play by play, I had forgotten how dangerously close that disaster came to happening. USF committed four turnovers, Rusty Smith was throwing absolute rockets like he was John Elway in his prime, and FAU ran an astounding 30 plays in Bulls territory in the first half. But they only had seven points to show for it, thanks to three missed field goals. Although FAU never held the lead at any point, the game was tied 7-7 at halftime and 14-14 midway through the third quarter. Late in the game, the Owls trailed 28-23 and actually had two chances to drive down and win it, but they both failed in their own territory. They could have really put the Bulls in a deep hole early, but all those wasted opportunities ended up costing them.
Well, that and Ben Williams.
Williams had one of the best games by a running back in team history that day. With Mike Ford suspended and Jamar Taylor injuring himself early in the game, the tiny 5'7" Williams was the only rotation running back left for Jim Leavitt and Greg Gregory to turn to. After only getting 5 carries in the first half, Williams erupted in the second half for 161 yards on 20 carries, including three touchdowns. His 52-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter finally made it a two-score game at 28-17, and it was spectacular. Williams started left out of a zone read, then came back to the right side, broke one tackle, worked his way up the sidelines, somehow kept the play alive when it looked like he would be forced out of bounds, cut back, broke another tackle, and ran into the end zone. It was the kind of how-did-that-happen run that Matt Grothe would have made (and actually did make earlier in the game on a 4th and 1). The Bulls ultimately won 35-23, as Williams finished with 186 yards rushing and a school record-tying four touchdowns.
You don't really understand how important Williams was against the Owls until you think about what losing that game would have meant. Losing to a Sun Belt team? That would have been devastating. All the momentum from beating Auburn and West Virginia earlier that season would have been gone, and then some. Sure, FAU won the Sun Belt that year and then won a bowl game (which gave us this phenomenal picture). But if you're a top-10 team like the Bulls were at that point, you can't lose to anyone in the Sun Belt. The national ranking probably would have been gone, the national buzz would have disappeared, the ticket-buying surge would have ended, the recruiting boost might have petered out… everything. It would have taken a long time for the program to recover from that.
Thanks again, BBQ. You really saved the day.
Here's a highlight reel of that game: