Get it early: Tomorrow's game story
I'll have lots more later tonight, but here's a first look at the game story for Sunday's paper ...
FORT LAUDERDALE -- USF nearly fumbled it all away.
The No. 6 Bulls, in their debut as a top-10 team, didn’t look the part for much of Saturday’s game at Florida Atlantic, committing four turnovers and letting a young Sun Belt team hang around far too long for anyone’s comfort.
But strong second-half running, especially from junior Ben Williams, helped the Bulls escape with a 35-23 win before a sellout crowd of 21,106 at Lockhart Stadium.
“I thought they did a great job of handling all the adversity, the turnovers, to keep battling,” said coach Jim Leavitt, whose team improved to 5-0 for only the second time in its 11-year history. “Give FAU a lot of credit. It’s due to them. They fought their tail off.”
The final score doesn’t reflect how close the Owls (3-3) came to giving the Bulls more than a scare. USF never trailed, but FAU got the ball twice in the final six minutes with a chance to drive for a go-ahead touchdown.
USF’s defense stepped up, not allowing the Owls past their own 21-yard line, where a fourth-down pass fell incomplete in the final minute. With 29 seconds left, the Bulls padded their cushion for scoreboard-watching poll voters with a school-record fourth touchdown run from Williams.
The 5-foot-7 former walk-on, who is USF's starter but had managed just 124 yards in the first four games, finished with a career-best 186 yards, the sixth-best total in school history. That included 54 on another fourth-quarter score, making up for a costly fumble early in the final period.
“Ben’s a guy that can get it together real fast,” tackle Walt Walker said. “He’s hard on himself when he does anything wrong, so he really focused in on doing the right thing. He went to the o-line and said, ‘We’re going to get together and get it going. Let’s trust each other and go.”
Playing without leading rusher Mike Ford, who was held out after missing classes, USF still rushed for 257 yards in the second half, finishing with 302 as a team, the Bulls’ highest total since the 2005 season.
That said, USF’s offense has committed 11 turnovers in its last three games, and offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said the team ran only when it struggled with its initial plan to test FAU’s pass defense.
“We came into this game planning on throwing it a ton. Our game plan was to throw the ball like mad,” Gregory said. “But we’re not throwing it that consistently at quarterback, and when we are, we’re not catching it consistently. We have chances for big plays, and we’re not hitting them.”
Grothe threw for just 122 yards, the second-lowest complete-game total of his career, but made up for it on his feet, rushing for a career-high 120 yards and a 32-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1.
"I don't think we came out flat," Grothe said. "I think the few early turnovers got to us, got us down, and it took a while to get back up."
The Bulls, whose fans accounted for nearly half the Lockhart crowd, left town with a close win, but will need to play better at home this week as they face a closer rival in Central Florida.
“I worried about this game from the beginning of the year,” Leavitt said. “I thought this would be the toughest challenge up to this date, as far as emotionally making sure we’re ready to go.”
FAU quarterback Rusty Smith threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns, including one to Riverview grad Jason Harmon and a 47-yard strike to DiIvory Edgecomb that cut the lead to 28-23 with 6:43 to play.
"It was a bittersweet defeat, because we didn't take advantage of all the opportunities we had to win the game," Owls coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "The sweet part of it is that we played them as well as anybody has this season."