Well, this is the big one. Actually there ended up being four or five big ones in 2007, but in my opinion, this was the big one. Because if USF doesn’t beat Auburn 26-23 at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 8, 2007, the games that follow aren’t nearly as important, nearly as crazy, or nearly as memorable. This game set everything up.
It was also, for me, the most nerve-wracking game USF has ever played. It’s not even close, and I’m not sure it can be topped unless the Bulls crash the College Football Playoff or something. The statbook says this game took three hours and 39 minutes. It felt like about 12. If you watched this game and survived it, football cannot kill you. Congratulations.
Let’s get to the game, with the combo of Dan Fouts (normally an analyst) doing play-by-play and Tim Brant (who often did play-by-play) doing the analysis.
The best USF road crowd ever?
It’s pretty rare for USF to have big away support at a football game. We don’t have the decades of history, massive road games, or nationwide alumni to make that possible (yet). Normally to get a big USF crowd away from Tampa, it has to be a bowl game or an in-state opponent where tickets are easy to come by.
Auburn wasn’t either one of those, but it didn’t matter. The band traveled, which had almost never happened up to that point. And the few thousand fans who did get tickets were LOUD. Maybe even manic. Listen to them making noise when Auburn got the ball for the first time, backed up against their own end zone.
Look at some of the celebrations after big turnovers or scores.
And of course when USF finally won the game, they went absolutely nuts. (We’ll get to that a little later.) I think this was the best road crowd USF’s ever had. It’s better than the FSU crowd in 2009, or the Notre Dame crowd in 2011. At those games, we knew the Bulls might figure out a way to win because they’d done it before. It wasn’t quite as electric with hope and anticipation as it was against Auburn. USF hadn’t won a game in a place like that, a Saturday night game at an SEC stadium with 87,000 fans in it. Once you win at Auburn, winning a noon game at Doak seems just a tad bit easier.
USF played well enough to win
There have been a couple big wins for USF that, let’s be honest, were fluky. Notre Dame beat themselves in 2011. The Louisville win in 2005, the Bulls’ first over a top 10 team, was flipped on its head by a series of devastating gadget plays. But most of the time, they earned it. And they earned this win over Auburn.
The Bulls came out and surprised the Tigers early with some option runs. (I’d have to watch some more 2006 games to be sure, but this may be the first time they’d ever used the read option.) Ben Williams gained 19 yards on the first play from scrimmage, although that drive ended with a punt. On the next drive, Mike Ford ran for 20 yards on a veer option, setting up Matt Grothe’s touchdown run. Two drives later, Grothe kept the ball for 27 yards to put USF in range for a Ford touchdown.
Auburn adjusted and brought more players down to the line of scrimmage to cut off the options. That and some bad field position limited USF’s big play ability, but they made a few timely offensive plays and avoided bad decisions all night. Grothe was 18-for-27 passing, and crucially, USF didn’t commit any turnovers.
Meanwhile, Auburn turned the ball over five times. Nate Allen made a big interception to stop one drive at the goal line. The Tigers fumbled three times and lost them all. In the fourth quarter, Mike Jenkins jumped in front of a route and nearly ran it back for a touchdown. USF could have easily won this game going away.
The fall and rise and fall and rise of Delbert Alvarado
USF fans rag on Alvarado a lot. We’ve done it too. It’s not really fair. We all got spoiled by seven years of the Gramatica brothers, and six more years of Maikon Bonani and Marvin Kloss. College kickers aren’t supposed to make 85% of their kicks like NFL kickers do. Delbert’s 2007 season, when he made 65.5%, is actually pretty normal. He was also USF’s punter for three years, and he did that very well against Auburn.
The field goal attempts on this night, though, were bad. Here’s the thing about Alvarado. He had a cannon of a leg, but sometimes you didn’t know which direction the ball would go. It was sort of like how big fat linemen used to kick before there were soccer-style kickers. You knew they would boom the ball far enough, it was just whether it would be straight enough.
Alvarado tried six field goals in the second half, many of them following Auburn turnovers. The first one, from 37 yards out, was well wide. The second, a 45-yard try, was possibly the worst miss ever by a USF kicker — it nearly went out of bounds before it crossed the end line. The third one, another 37-yarder, was blocked. Any one of them would have tied the game, and the crowd went wild every time he missed. Alvarado’s confidence had to be absolutely zero by this point.
But Delbert only needed one person to keep his faith in him, and Jim Leavitt did that. Finally on his fourth attempt to tie the score at 17, Alvarado took some power off the kick and went for placement. He split the uprights from 38 yards away.
The adventure wasn’t over yet. After Jenkins’ interception, USF couldn’t move the ball and called on Alvarado to try a 21-yard field goal to give the Bulls the lead. Kicking from a lousy angle (a right-footed kicker on the left hashmark), he missed again.
After that last miss, no one would have blamed Leavitt if he brought out Justin Teachey for the next one, or if he decided screw it, I’m not trying any more kicks tonight. But again, he stuck with Alvarado.
The most underrated play in USF football history
Wes Byram hit a 46-yard field goal to give Auburn a 20-17 lead with 2:55 left. This was the lowest point of the night for USF fans. It looked like the same old story for underdog teams looking to pull the upset over SEC powerhouses. Play really well, but self-destruct at the worst possible time and come away empty-handed in the end. Until:
Jerome Murphy’s 59-yard kickoff return has been completely forgotten in the retelling of this game. Without it, I don’t know if USF drives down the field to tie the game again. Without it, the Bulls don’t win. And without it, the 2007 season is not the 2007 season. This was a huge, huge play. If you ask me, it’s the most underrated USF play ever. (Ryeshene Bronson’s tackle-breaking catch and run in 2015 is a distant second.)
Jim Leavitt made gutsy decisions and Tommy Tuberville didn’t
Here’s what I wrote back in 2010 about Leavitt’s decision to kick the field goal at the end of regulation:
OK, big shot, you want to be a head coach? Make this decision. It’s 4th and goal at the 2 with a minute to play. You trail 20-17. Your kicker is 1-for-5 on field goals in the game. You have no timeouts. You must score or the game is over. The ball is on the left hash mark at a terrible angle for your right-footer kicker. You are on the road in front of 87,000 people. What do you do? Leavitt called for the field goal, and he would still be getting second-guessed today if Alvarado had missed another one. But Delbert kicked it right through. Overtime.
You could argue that letting Alvarado try that field goal, after he’d just missed one very similar to it a few minutes ago, was even gutsier than going for it on 4th down and letting the whole game ride on one play. It was one hell of a decision.
Auburn got good field position on the ensuing kickoff. They had the ball on their own 36, two timeouts left, about 50 seconds left, and a top-notch kicker. After an incompletion, Brandon Cox (who had a terrible game) was sacked for a loss of a yard. Even though the Bulls were out of timeouts and he had plenty of time to call another play, Tuberville let the clock expire.
Maybe Tubs was scared of another turnover giving USF a chance to win, but they didn’t need to move the ball that far to get a chance to win themselves. It was a surprising decision. Needless to say, the crowd hated it.
(Side note: as a result of USF winning this game, I feel I’m eminently qualified to comment on other teams who make bad late-game decisions when they have a chance to knock off an SEC team on the road. It’s like watching a horror movie and yelling at the screen when someone makes a dumb move that you know will get them killed. NOOOOO DON’T TAKE A KNEE AND SETTLE FOR OVERTIME.)
In overtime, after Auburn led off with a field goal, Leavitt decided to go for it on 4th and an inch. Grothe kept the game alive with a sneak for a first down. And that led to...
Shin 560 Shin Elbow
You’ve seen this play a hundred times. Empty backfield, five wide. Taurus Johnson and Marcus Edwards ran short hitches on the outside, while Jessie Hester ran a flag route. A classic smash combination. Hester beat Auburn safety Eric Brock to his spot, and Grothe lofted the ball in there over a desperation effort by Zach Gilbert, who broke for the ball as soon as it was thrown but never got anywhere near it. Touchdown. Game over.
The entire bench lost their shit. Like 30 guys ran toward Hester over by the Auburn student section for a pileup. One of them, possibly Auburn transfer Courtney Denson, started taunting the fans, earning the whole group a shower of orange and blue pom poms. (I especially like the naval cadet in the front row with his halfhearted toss.)
The USF fans climbed over seats and fell down on each other celebrating like a South American soccer crowd.
It was mayhem of the very best kind. USF beat Auburn, dammit. The 2007 season was officially underway.
- I didn’t even mention Taurus Johnson’s insane one-handed catch until now. That’s how much of a roller coaster this game was.
- Happy 31st birthday, Matt Grothe.
- Grohawk status: Still not a thing.
Next time: USF gets ranked, throttles North Carolina, and the student section comes of age.