Bulls make most of 41-14 bowl win at Trop
ST. PETERSBURG -- Playing on the first day of bowl season, this wasn't when the Bulls wanted to finish their year. Playing in a half-full baseball stadium a half-hour from campus, it wasn't where USF wanted to be going into a promising season.
But absent that, this was how USF wanted to finish its season, with quarterback Matt Grothe leading a dominating 41-14 win in the first-ever St. Petersburg Bowl against a mediocre Memphis team from the Bulls' old league, Conference USA.
If it's possible to embrace a tradition of winning brand-new games at the low end of the bowl spectrum, USF coach Jim Leavitt has done that, his other bowl win coming in the first Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham two years earlier.
"In the history of college football, how many teams will be able to someday say they won the inaugural bowl of two different bowls?" Leavitt proudly asked after the victory. "Will that ever happen again in college football? Probably not, because I don't know if they'll keep having inaugural bowls."
Even with the nearby Bulls (8-5) to presumably help attendance, the crowd at Tropicana Field was announced at 25,055 and wasn't close to that, with some lower-level sections half-empty and a sparse few in the upper deck after Memphis (6-7) sold less than 2,000 seats. USF didn't even sell out its allotment, distributing 8,500 tickets through its ticket office.
If Grothe had played more games like he did Saturday, the Bulls might still be waiting for their bowl game. After throwing three touchdowns in the previous five games -- including four USF losses -- Grothe looked like the nimble passer who led USF to a 5-0 start and No. 10 ranking, throwing for three touchdowns and becoming the Big East's all-time leader in total offense.
"The biggest thing that motivated me was to go out and play football," said Grothe, who went without an interception for the first time in two months. "The last few weeks of the season, we were trying so hard to win a game we forgot how to play football. The rest of the team played their tails off, and when you have everybody playing on top of their game, it's a good thing."
Grothe, named the bowl's Most Outstanding Player, completed 17 of 24 passes for 236 yards, and rushed for 83 yards, the most by any USF player in a game this season. He finished his junior year with 10,242 career yards of total offense, 100 more than West Virginia senior Pat White.
Receiver Dontavia Bogan's 56-yard return of the opening kickoff set up Grothe's first touchdown, to receiver Taurus Johnson, just 62 seconds into the game. His second TD put USF up 24-7, and Memphis wouldn't get closer than 10 points, held scoreless in the second half by a Bulls defense that limited the Tigers to 238 yards.
Grothe's last touchdown went to Bogan, and he watched the fourth quarter from the sidelines, a refreshing change after being knocked out of his last two bowls with injuries.
A year ago, USF had the opposite situation from Saturday -- a proud trip to the storied Sun Bowl, but a 35-point loss to Oregon that stung for months. Now the Bulls have the consolation of positive momentum, knowing this was a Crosby, Still, Nash and Young kind of victory: If you can't be in the bowl you want, win the bowl you're in.
"The biggest thing about this game is that it launches us into next year," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "We underachieved in our season, but you have to put that behind you."