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Instant Analysis: South Florida-Cincinnati
The nation will hear more from coach Brian Kelly's Cincinnati Bearcats, who stayed in contention for the Big East title with a victory Thursday night at Nippert Stadium. With that said, the biggest story in the immediate aftermath of this conference collision has to be USF's early exit from the championship chase. Coach Jim Leavitt's squad, which conquered Kansas in September and rose to No. 10 in this year's national rankings, once again crashed and burned in October to take a promising season into the tank.
This battle with the Bearcats was supposed to represent the start of South Florida's second season, a finishing stretch when the Bulls could run the table and, with a little help, use tiebreakers to win the Big East and snare the BCS bowl bid that's been coveted by the program the past few years. Cracking the top 10 in consecutive seasons will ratchet up the expectations, so the Bulls had a right to believe that they could shake off their slow start and pour on the power.
Instead, a blueprint for renewal turned into the same old setbacks for a thoroughly discouraged ballclub.
The Bulls were their own worst enemy on the eve of Halloween, creating a horror show so ghastly that Leavitt, their leader, watched the game with a face seemingly stuck in a permanent scowl. South Florida shot itself in the foot with bad blunders at the worst possible times. Fluid in short stretches and generally able to move the ball, the Bulls and quarterback Matt Grothe were rarely, if ever, shut down. The problem with USF's offense on Thursday was that it failed to finish drives. Grothe threw three interceptions, two of them deep in Cincinnati territory on ill-advised tosses into traffic. A third pick--caused by a receiver's dropped pass--stopped yet another promising march near midfield. Grothe can light up opposing defenses when on his game--the September success against Kansas proved as much--but against the Bearcats, the inconsistent signal caller couldn't find the focus needed to finalize when his team needed touchdowns.
While Grothe committed a few gridiron gaffes, the quarterback was hardly the player most responsible for USF's struggles. South Florida receivers--besides causing one of Grothe's three picks--dropped several other passes that would have moved the sticks and, at the very least, prevented Cincinnati from gaining either momentum or field position. A miscommunication by two wideouts sabotaged a fourth-and-goal play midway through the fourth quarter, when the Bulls--down 24-10--had to get seven points. The foremost key to this game, in fact, lay in the difference between the two receiving corps. While USF pass catchers literally and figuratively dropped the ball, Bearcat skill players made highlight-reel grabs to create big plays for starting quarterback Tony Pike, who had begun the season as a backup to the now-injured Dustin Grutza.
UC's Marshwan Gilyard fully laid out his body to snare a 48-yard bomb from Pike in the first quarter, setting up a Bearcat field goal. Cincinnati tight end Ben Guidugli made the best catch of the night, a one-handed suction-cup classic that gained 33 yards on a second-quarter drive. In the third stanza, receiver Dominick Goodman came up with a phenomenal grab to advance the ball 24 yards to the USF 13, setting up the touchdown that provided Cincy with a fourth-quarter cushion. From start to finish, the one clear point of separation in this contest came in the realm of catching. Grothe and Pike proved to be uneven pitchers of the pigskin, while both defenses hit hard and contained the opposing ground game. The team that caught the ball better scored two more touchdowns, a telling testament to the value of sure-handed skill people on the edges. Cincy had them, USF didn't, and that's why the Bulls find their season in ruins.
Cincinnati has yet to play league-leading West Virginia, so the Bearcats--with a little outside help--can still work their way to the top of the Big East before this season's over. For the dejected Bulls, however, the season's biggest goals are already out of reach. Before the beginning of November, the squad from the Sunshine State has seen its quest for a conference crown come to a shockingly premature end.
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