This game only happened five years ago, and yet it already feels like 30. You wonder when the next time USF will be in a game where both teams are ranked. They probably have to get the one spot in the access bowls for that to happen, or make the American's championship game in a good year for the league. We've all lost a lot of things since 2009, but the loss of these truly important regular-season games might be the biggest.
USF's 2009 season ramped up very slowly. The Bulls ended up with two FCS opponents because Florida International backed out of the last game of a 2-for-1 to go host Rutgers instead. (This is why USF still refuses to schedule FIU in any sport. They really deserve to be stuck with Pete Garcia in charge until the sun burns out.) As we all know, Matt Grothe was lost in the third warmup game, but the next week B.J. Daniels famously stepped in and helped the Bulls upset Florida State in Tallahassee. USF then beat Syracuse to run their record to 5-0 and break into the national polls at #21.
Cincinnati, who won the Big East the previous year, also entered this game 5-0. They nuked Rutgers 47-15 on Labor Day, and they also had two pretty decent non-conference wins at Oregon State and home against Fresno State under their belt. Brian Kelly was getting his due as one of the best coaches in college football, directing a high-powered offense with Tony Pike, Armon Binns, Mardy Gilyard, DJ Woods, and Isaiah Pead. The Bearcats were ranked eighth in the country, and were getting some due as a dark horse BCS title contender. (Ah, 2009. The good old days, before the Big East had one bad year and everyone decided it was a worthless pile of crap.)
This matchup had all the trappings of a big game - a huge home crowd, the SunTrust building lit up in green and gold, and a national TV audience for a Thursday ni... oh, well you already know how this game ended based on that, don't you.
USF started out pretty well. After Cincinnati turned good field position into a Jacob Rogers field goal, the Bulls answered with a big kickoff return from Dontavia Bogan. The offense overcame a personal foul along the way to a 58-yard touchdown drive, finished off by a 28-yard touchdown from Daniels to Jessie Hester Jr. New kicker Eric Schwartz knocked home the extra point and gave USF a 7-3 lead.
The Bulls forced a Bearcats punt and began driving again. As the first quarter ended, they had the ball at the Cincinnati 40-yard line. But then came SUPER DISASTER PLAY #1.
On the first play of the second period, Daniels threw a post for Bogan (I think) but did not see safety Aaron Webster patrolling the middle. Webster intercepted it, dodged a couple of tackles, and then took off down the sideline with a convoy of blockers for 83 yards, all the way to the USF 3-yard line. Pike threw a touchdown pass to Binns on the next play and the Bearcats led 10-7.
Cincinnati caught a break on their next possession. George Selvie sacked Pike inside his own 10 and forced a fumble, but the ball bounced right back to Pike. On the next play, a 3rd and 17, Selvie almost got Pike again near the goal line. Pike got away and somehow threaded a pass to Woods on the left sideline for 25 yards. The Bearcats then drove down for another touchdown pass to Binns to make it 17-7.
Pike fumbled again near the end of the half while dropping back to pass, but recovered that one too. USF scratched out a late drive and brought out Schwartz for a 50-yard field goal on the final play that I personally would have given about 15-to-1 odds against him making. Incredibly, Schwartz hit it right down the middle and the Bulls cut the lead to 17-10 at halftime.
At this point, there was still some hope. The teams weren't that far apart, but the breaks of the game were consistently going the Bearcats' way. The only real problem was that Cincinnati seemed to be taking turns picking on USF cornerback Jerome Murphy. In the second half, he would come totally unglued.
Cincinnati's first drive of the second half ended with a missed field goal by Rogers. Keith McCaskill also ended Tony Pike's evening when he cleaned up a pass rush on 3rd down and knocked Pike down. The Bearcats were going to have to turn to little-used sophomore Zach Collaros, who had completed exactly one (1) collegiate pass attempt for two (2) yards.
USF was held quickly and the Bearcats got the ball back. They soon found themselves in a 3rd and 11 on their own 25. Brian Kelly called a timeout to think about what play to call. He would dial up SUPER DISASTER PLAY #2.
With the crowd roaring, Collaros took off on a quarterback draw that fooled everybody. Nate Allen, of all people, took a bad angle to Collaros and maybe underestimated his speed. Allen missed a tackle at the 40 and Collaros was out the gate. He ran 75 yards for a soul-crushing touchdown.
As a USF fan, this play was positively scarring. As a fan of football, though, this was beautiful. I love it when a team just sticks it right down the other team's throat in a big spot with something unexpected. Especially with the timeout to build up the tension. NO ONE saw this play coming. It was brilliant and also it sucked very, very hard.
Now, about Jerome Murphy. 2009 was supposed to be Keeley Dorsey's senior year, but he had passed away during an offseason workout a couple of years before. The senior class took turns wearing Dorsey's #10 uniform as a tribute to their fallen teammate. Murphy wore it against Cincinnati, which made it even more upsetting when he kept getting beat on coverages and taking penalties. In the third quarter, he took a pointless unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting Mardy Gilyard after he broke up a pass. Then he was a victim of SUPER DISASTER PLAY #3, a 42-yard pass to tight end Ben Guidugli after USF had closed to within 24-17. Allen jumped down from his free safety spot to cover the outside receiver and Murphy was late reacting as Guidugli glided up the field, barely saving a touchdown.
Guidugli was hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct flag, bringing the ball back to the 16. Then Murphy was called for another awful, ill-timed penalty when he interfered with Binns on 3rd and goal. It gave the Bearcats a new set of downs, and this time Collaros converted with a 3-yard run to basically put the game away. When USF went three and out on the next series, it was over. The final score was 34-17.
Collin likes to talk about The Big Game At Home with USF basketball. The Big Game At Home is when you have a quality opponent coming to town and you have a chance to establish yourself as a contender, as a program, as a name. Dick Vitale inadvertently coined this phrase in 2002 after the basketball team had blown The Big Game At Home for the umpteenth time. Dickie V hasn't called a USF game since.
It had been a very long time since USF football had lost The Big Game At Home, maybe dating all the way back to Western Kentucky in 1998. They played pretty well against the Bearcats, but the few mistakes they made were all very costly. This was a psychologically damaging loss that I don't think that team ever totally recovered from. Certainly not the next week, when Pittsburgh beat them by like 200 points. Definitely not a few weeks later when Rutgers shut them out on another Thursday night. And maybe the hangover from this loss was still rattling around Jim Leavitt's head when the Bulls came out flat against Louisville and he went in the locker room at halftime and... well, you know.
Still, at least USF got to play The Big Game At Home. When's that going to happen again?