An empty bus pulled up to Raymond James Stadium here late Friday afternoon and the West Virginia University football team got off.

That is to say, in case the point has been missed, like so many blocks and tackles were, the Mountaineers failed to show up.

An APB was sent out for them. They searched the beaches but they weren’t there. They searched the strip clubs that seem to grow like mushrooms on Dale Mabry Boulevard, which runs right by the Ray-J, but they weren’t there.

Probably just as well, for had they been there and the ladies working the club challenged them to a game of two-handed touch — a game they certainly have more experience playing, considering their profession — they would have won that game just as South Florida won the football game.

Much was lost for the Mountaineers on this night, the least of which was WVU’s pride. There will be no national title. There probably won’t be a BCS invitation. As for the Heisman Trophy, well, it’s probably just as well that Steve Slaton won’t get it because the way this game was played you could have bet he would have dropped it.

Oh, yes, also lost was quarterback Patrick White, who was hit hard on his right knee near the end of the first half and did no more than stand as an observer on the sidelines the rest of the way.

All week long they had ballyhooed this game as the biggest game in the history of USF football, as brief as that is. The Bulls have had a team only 11 years, and they haven’t been out of the trailers that served as administrative offices and executive men’s rooms less than a decade ago.

The people of the Sun Coast certainly bought into the hype. They came out 65,018 strong. That represents a record for a USF game.

Record? You might say that. The old record was almost 18,000 fewer fans.

Oh, there was another record broken. Ten turnovers in the game.

Not to say that the play was bad, but after eight first-half turnovers there were rumors spreading that the halftime show would be a clinic conducted by a Pop Warner League team on the fundamentals of football for the players.

Undaunted by the awful performance on both sides, the coaches made halftime adjustments. You could almost hear them in the press box.

“This is a football. The idea is to hold on to it. And, when you throw it, try throwing it to a guy wearing the same color jersey that you are wearing, not one of the guys in the other color.”

Perhaps the biggest miracle of all was that as the game entered its final six minutes, despite six turnovers and who knows how many bad snaps, missed blocks, dropped passes and untied shoelaces, WVU was still in the game.

In fact, after a desperation fourth-quarter drive that ended with backup quarterback Jarrett Brown making up for a pair of second-half interceptions, one in the end zone, with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Darius Reynaud, the Mountaineers were within eight at 21-13.

“We need that one spark,” said coach Rich Rodriguez, as subdued as he’s ever been since being named West Virginia coach. “We got closer and closer, but we needed that spark.”

It never really came, although the defense tried to provide it after the Mountaineers cut the deficit to eight.

They did their thing as best they could, getting the ball back for the offense after Johnny Dingle sacked USF quarterback Matt Grothe for a 15-yard loss at his own 15, forcing a punt

The Mountaineers were given no help by the punt, which soared 57 yards, and took over at their own 30, 2:41 left. They needed to go 73 yards ... 70 for a touchdown and then 3 for a two-point conversion to force overtime.

The Mountaineers gained 30 of those yards, but their dreams of an unbeaten season, of a BCS and maybe a national championship ended when Brown’s fourth-down pass to 6-foot, 8-inch Wes Lyons was too low and slipped through his hands and onto the turf.

It was a fitting end, with the ball winding up on the ground.

To sum it up, Rodriguez simply said “They just made more plays than we did.”

Perhaps it would have been better stated had he said it this way: “They just made fewer bad plays than we did.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at

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