Change at kicker does South Florida good

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
TAMPA -- For years and years, Jim Leavitt has had a gameday ritual: the equipment manager leaves three Pepsis and two Hershey bars in his locker.

Not two Pepsis or three Hershey bars. It's always the same quantity.

"I don't really like to make changes too much," the South Florida coach said.

So it wasn't an easy decision this week for Leavitt to replace his struggling kicker, Delbert Alvarado, with true freshman Maikon Bonani. He talked it over at length with associate head coach Wally Burnham. At the beginning of Wednesday's practice, he had Bonani and Alvarado each kick from the same distances several times, just to make sure.

In the end, Leavitt went against his nature and made the change. It just might have saved the Bulls' season.

Bonani drilled a 43-yard field goal as time expired Friday night to lift No. 19 South Florida past 13th-ranked Kansas 37-34 at Raymond James Stadium. In his first college game, Bonani made three of four field goals.

The game-winner sneaked just through the right upright. Bonani lost sight of the ball just after it crossed the goal line when a Kansas player ran into him. (A penalty was called, but it didn't matter).

"I thought it was my teammates that hit me, that I was being tackled by my teammates," he said. "Then I heard the crowd, and I knew it was good."

A little more than 48 hours after finding out he would play his first college game, Bonani was carried around the field by teammates. He jumped to slap hands with fans as he ran through the tunnel to the locker room.

South Florida has high ambitions, but it desperately needed more consistency from its kicking game. Alvarado came into this season having made just 22 of 36 attempts and went 1-for-4 in the first two games of 2008. The coaching staff knew a change was needed, but it's never easy throwing a true freshman into that role.

"You've got to be careful, because you can ruin a guy," Burnham said. "If he goes in there tonight and doesn't succeed, you've probably mentally injured two guys, not just one."

The move didn't look so smart on Bonani's first attempt, a 41-yard attempt in the second quarter that cranked way left on a line drive. Bonani said he knew he swung too fast on the kick, and he expected to get yelled at on the sidelines.

Instead, his teammates all offered words of support.

"After that, I was like, they've got my back, and so I'm going to have theirs," he said. "That really motivated the most."

He came back a few minutes later and split the uprights from 34 yards out. Alvarado was the first one to run over and congratulate him, hugging Bonani on the sidelines.

Nate Allen's interception return with 30 seconds left set the Bulls up on the Kansas 27. After a one-yard run, Leavitt opted to let the clock run down to two seconds before calling timeout. He was going to let Bonani try to win it instead of running another play.

Kansas called timeout to ice Bonani. No one said anything to the freshman on the sidelines during all those nervous minutes.

"I tried not to think about much," he said. "I felt somewhat confident after making the first two. I just wanted us to score and win the game."

Bonani couldn't have envisioned this scenario growing up. He lived in Brazil until he was 11 before moving to Florida. A soccer player since he was four, his leg attracted the attention of his Lake Wales High School football coaches his sophomore year.

"They knew I could kick a soccer ball, and so they said come and try it out," Bonani said. "Why not? Football is what America loves."

Right now, South Florida football fans love Maikon Bonani.