Mighty Bull rises to the occasion
TAMPA, Fla. -- He looked terrified.
South Florida kicker Maikon Bonani, all 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds of him, wore the blank stare of the overwhelmed late Friday night as he walked north to south down the sideline at Raymond James Stadium, high-fiving anyone with a hand. The delirious fans, completely unaware the little guy wearing No. 28 had, moments earlier, answered their prayers, returned the high-fives. The only clue that their hero stood in their midst came from the mouth of USF safety Danny Verpaele. He just screamed, "I love Brazil!"
Bonani, a Sao Paolo native who moved to tiny Lake Wales, Fla., at age 11, learned before Wednesday's practice that he would supplant incumbent Delbert Alvarado as the Bulls' starting kicker so Alvarado could concentrate on punting. Fifty-seven hours later, Bonani, a true freshman, stood alone in front of a national television audience with two seconds on the clock and an impending 43-yard field goal attempt to beat No. 13 Kansas.
"I gave it a ride," Bonani said later.
The ball began its flight wide of the right upright, then hooked inside just before it reached the post. Time had expired. The No. 19 Bulls won 37-34. The Raymond James Stadium crowd exploded. Someone -- he isn't sure if it was friend or foe -- tackled Bonani. When he stood up, the first teammate to congratulate him was Alvarado, whose pinpoint punt had forced Kansas into the field-position hole that led to the Nate Allen interception that set up Bonani's kick, which might never have happened if a wise USF assistant hadn't helped Bulls coach Jim Leavitt make a difficult call this week.
When Bonani stepped on the field with the game on his foot, USF defensive coordinator Wally Burnham knew the young kicker wouldn't wilt. Sure, he'd missed a 41-yarder -- his first career attempt -- in the second quarter, but Burnham remembered the kid he met at Lake Wales High during the recruiting process.
"He's such a good athlete," Burnham said. "He could probably play tennis here. He could play soccer here. ... He's a competitor. It's ingrained in him to be a competitor and go out there with ice in his veins."
As Leavitt pondered making the kicking change this week, he consulted Burnham, his Yoda -- if Yoda were 6-foot-4 and spoke with a Pell City, Ala., twang. Burnham recommended Bonani, but neither coach took the decision lightly. Both coaches understood the risk if Bonani flopped on the big stage. "You've got to be careful," Burnham said. "You can ruin a guy."
As he moved down the line, the fans finally realized who stood before them. A female fan spotted him a few feet away and squealed. "Yay, kicker!" A few seats away, another fan raised his arms in the air and screamed, "It's good." Bonani looked more terrified than ever.
As great as Bonani's story is, it seems a shame one of the pint-sized quarterbacks didn't throw a pass to win the game. Aside from their height -- 6-foot or a whisker under -- KU's Todd Reesing and Matt Grothe have something else in common. Your favorite school probably didn't want either one of them.
Only a handful of BCS conference schools recruited Reesing, the 5-foot-11 dynamo who in 2007 threw for 3,486 yards and 33 touchdowns and led Kansas to a 12-1 season. USF was the only Division I-A school to recruit the 6-foot Grothe, who last year led the Bulls to wins at Auburn and at home against West Virginia and inspired Alvarado to produce a hip-hop ode.
Friday, Reesing and Grothe combined to throw for 711 yards and five touchdowns. Each player rushed for a touchdown. Each player led a furious comeback. Grothe led his team back from a 20-3 deficit, helping the Bulls rip off 31 unanswered points and put Kansas in a two-touchdown hole early in the fourth quarter.
Reesing laughed at that deficit, marching the Jayhawks down the field for touchdowns on consecutive possessions. Most of the night, he dodged USF sackmaster George Selvie, who blasted through double-teams and chased Reesing only to watch the quarterback throw another dart into a receiver's waiting hands.
It seemed Reesing couldn't make a mistake -- until he did. Leavitt theorized that the worst thing that could have happened to former Kansas State co-worker Mark Mangino and the Jayhawks was getting out of the predicament Alavarado's punt produced. Kansas took the ball at its own 7-yard line with 1:54 remaining and three timeouts. Six plays later, Angus Quigley scooted 20 yards to the Kansas 40. Mangino called timeout. Kansas would play for the win.
"That may have been a blessing," Leavitt said.
Allen believes Reesing never saw him slip behind receiver Johnathan Wilson. Reesing heaved. The ball seemed to float forever. Finally, Allen struck. He snatched it from the air and returned it to the Kansas 27. Leavitt never considered trying to move closer. He planned to kick for the win.
With each high five, the muscles in Bonani's face relaxed. Is that ... could it be? Yes! It's a smile! The fans, finally aware that the young man before them is a stone-cold assassin whose weapon is his right foot, screamed for him.
Leavitt asked for a timeout when the clock struck two seconds. During that timeout, Bonani stood alone.
"I kind of walked away," he said. "As a kicker, I guess it's stereotypical. I didn't want to be the only kicker who goes and actually talks to his teammates."
On the right side of USF's line, Selvie looked for rushers from the outside and from the inside. He made his block. The kick would get away. "I was praying," he said. "I was like, 'Ok, I made my block. Now it's time to watch.' It was tough watching it."
Bonani's mind remained clear until after he found himself at the bottom of a pile. "Honestly, man, I didn't think about much," he said. "I just kicked the ball. Thank God it went in."
Almost to the tunnel, Bonani looked anything but terrified. That smile had grown wider with every step. He noticed a bank of cameras and flashed a set of Bull horns using his index and pinkie fingers. Of course, the Bulls ripped off the Texas "Hook 'em Horns" sign, but hopefully the folks in Austin can forgive USF its larceny for a night. As Bonani turned into the tunnel, he saw a beautiful woman cheering and begging for a high five. He must have jumped three feet off the ground.