Not sharp, but Bulls beat Hilltoppers, 35-13
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Another week, another cupcake and another rough start for USF football, which stumbled early against Western Kentucky and led by just eight points in the fourth quarter Saturday night.
The Bulls pulled out a 35-13 win before an announced crowd of 20,568 at L.T. Smith Stadium, but against a team thought by some to be the worst in Division I-A football, the margin wasn’t reassuring.
"We're definitely going to have to play better," said senior running back Mo Plancher, who rushed for a career-high 115 yards and two touchdowns. "We need to step it up, practice harder ... we have to be more mentally ready."
USF quarterback Matt Grothe threw for two touchdowns and 208 yards and became the Big East’s career leader in total offense, but he also threw an interception and wasn’t as sharp as he was in the Bulls’ win against Wofford.
The Bulls (2-0) actually trailed 3-0 in the first quarter, then scored back-to-back touchdowns, but for the second week in a row, had a single-digit halftime lead against a lesser opponent, up 14-6 on WKU (0-2) at the half.
"Playing them, they're not in the (same) world like the Big East. Not even the hemisphere," coach Jim Leavitt said. "It's more us. We just played very ... not as sharp as I'd like to ... I was disappointed we didn't play as well as I assumed we'd play. It wasn't anything other than us."
Leavitt was particularly concerned about special-teams mistakes -- kicker Delbert Alvarado missed field goals from 40 and 49 yards, both wide left, and USF had a punted ball bounce off cornerback George Baker in coverage to set up WKU's first points.
Grothe found receiver Carlton Mitchell on a crossing route that went 50 yards to the 1-yard line, setting up Plancher's first touchdown.
Grothe found the end zone on the next drive as well, connecting with senior Theo Wilson for a 14-yard score. Wilson, who had not caught a pass at USF entering the season, has two touchdowns in two games.
"I think if you take away all the penalties, we played well," Grothe said of USF's nine flags for 85 yards. "When we executed, when we didn't stop ourselves with foolish penalties, we moved the ball right up and down the field."
Another long Grothe-to-Mitchell connection, this for 65 yards, set up a 7-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback B.J. Daniels, who lined up five times in a new "Toro Loco" formation that had Grothe lined up at receiver.
But WKU countered, with a USF personal-foul penalty keeping a drive alive and the Hilltoppers scoring to cut the Bulls’ lead to 21-13 late in the fourth quarter.
USF put the game out of reach when Grothe found tight end Ben Busbee for a touchdown with 11:26 remaining, and senior linebacker Chris Robinson, playing well in his second career start, got a key stop on a fourth and 2 near midfield. Another fourth-quarter Hilltoppers drive ended at the USF 13.
The Bulls have one more lightweight on their schedule with Charleston Southern coming to Tampa next week, and then USF has a huge opportunity, playing at Florida State, which struggled and barely beat I-AA Jacksonville State on Saturday.