Owls hang tough but can't master undefeated Bulls

FORT LAUDERDALE - South Florida was trying to defend its No. 6 national ranking for the first time Saturday, and Florida Atlantic nearly yanked it away from the Bulls.

Both teams traded punches all game long, but in the end it was the Owls who were staggered by the Bulls as USF slipped out of Lockhart Stadium with a 35-23 win.

"I knew it would be a 60-minute ballgame. You've got to give a lot of credit to FAU. They're a good football team. Coach [Howard] Schellenberger had them ready to go," said USF coach Jim Leavitt, whose Bulls are now 5-0.

"It was there for the taking. We were in this game from beginning to end," said FAU quarterback Rusty Smith.

"It was very bitter that we didn't take the advantages that were there to win the game," Schnellenberger said.

In front of a sellout crowd of 21,206, the largest ever to see an FAU game, the Owls (3-3) kept everyone in their seats as they matched the Bulls drive for drive through much of the game.

The defenses dominated the first half, which ended 7-7, though the Owls missed three field goals, points that would loom large as the second half unfolded.

"The offense should have scored on some of those so we didn't have to put the kicker out there in pressure situations," said FAU tight end Jason Harmon.

Both offenses fared better in the second half, as Bulls scored on their first possession, and FAU answered to tie it 14-14 with 9:41 left in the third quarter.

Bulls quarterback Matt Grothe then scored on a 32-yard run, and after FAU kicked a field goal to make it 21-17, Benjamin Williams broke off a 54-yard run to make it 28-17 with 9:54 left in the game.

Those two plays had the large Bulls contingent roaring, but FAU came right back when DiIvory Edgecomb caught a short pass over the middle and pulled free from several Bulls tacklers to cut the lead to 28-23 with 6:42 left.

"We knew we had to make a couple big plays. When it came my turn I had to make it a big play," said Edgecomb.

Harmon said, "The whole game I was thinking, 'They are not going to pull away from us.'"

FAU's defense held, and the Owls would get two more chances, but couldn't get a first down after starting at their own 4 with 5:33 left, and then got it back again with 1:25 remaining, but were shut down again, giving the ball to the Bulls on their own 21, leading to USF's final score.

"It just hurts right now knowing we could have won a monumental victory for the school the community and everyone else," said FAU linebacker Cergile Sincere.

The win will keep the Bulls in the top 10, along with hopes of an undefeated season.

"We knew we were going to have adversity this year. We didn't know it was going to come so soon, but I'm glad it came sooner than later," said Bulls defensive end George Selvie.

"As bad as we played in the first half, we still came back and won. If this was last year's team, I don't know if we would have won today," Grothe said.

"We did a lot of good things tonight. We saw we could hang with a big team like USF," Smith said.