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October 3, 2007

Defense carries USF to higher level

TAMPA Suddenly, Big East football has a brand new look. Kind of like an extreme makeover, except this is a traditional, more mature appearance.

A sexy, wide-open approach to offense has been something of a trademark for the Big East, which began the season with four of its players West Virginia tailback Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White, Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm and Rutgers tailback Ray Rice hailed as strong Heisman Trophy contenders.

Now the conference looks to be adhering to the old-fashioned idea that strong defense is the best avenue to a championship.

That was never more evident than last Friday night, when upstart USF forced six turnovers and limited high-scoring West Virginia to a lone touchdown in a 21-13 victory that established the Bulls as the top contender for the conference title.

"Somebody said we would get beat like a rented mule," USF coach Jim Leavitt said after the win. "I thought, 'Goodness, gracious that's kind of mean.' I didn't bring it up to our team, but I didn't think that way.

"I thought we really had a shot at them."

USF (4-0) has shot up the national rankings largely because of a rugged defense, which ranks 18th in the nation and has allowed just 59 points in four games. Auburn is the only opponent that has scored a first-half touchdown against USF.

End George Selvie is one of the nation's premier pass rushers, cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams are as good a duo as any, linebackers Ben Moffitt and Tyrone McKenzie are largely unknown but unrelenting and free safety Nate Allen has a knack for making big plays.

Still, USF's players are still more blue-collar than blue-chip.

"There's no way we should stop the athletes those guys have Pat White and No. 10 (Slaton)," veteran USF defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "But they're disciplined and work their tails off. We practice really hard."

And the practice of playing good defense appears to be spreading. Last season, Rutgers was the only Big East team that finished among the country's top 20 in total defense. This season, five Big East teams are in the top 20. Connecticut is fifth, Pittsburgh is 10th, West Virginia 11th, Rutgers 12th and USF 18th. Of the quintet, USF's schedule has been the most difficult.

With so many teams playing sound defense and West Virginia and Louisville still boasting explosive offenses, Leavitt said the Bulls who play at Florida Atlantic this week won't cruise to the league title.

"You've got to be careful in this league," he said. "Everybody can beat everybody. It's a strong league. It's darn good football. How it rates in the country, I don't know."

And at this point, he and his team likely don't care, either. If the Bulls keep winning, they would become part of the national-championship discussion. For now, they're just focusing on winning the new-look Big East.

"Our team wants to win the Big East championship," USF quarterback Matt Grothe said. "If we keep doing well and executing and winning the big games like we need to, we'll do it. It's just a matter of staying together and sticking together until the end."

And playing good defense, which is what the Bulls do best.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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