TAMPA — Want to wash away the lingering stench of a disappointing loss? Nothing works like the power of Orange.
The No. 19 Bulls can only hope the second half of their season can turn out like the second half of Saturday's 45-13 win against lowly Syracuse, a dominating performance 16 days after their loss to unranked Pittsburgh.
Asked if there was any significance to USF (6-1, 1-1 Big East) becoming bowl eligible, Bulls quarterback Matt Grothe didn't flinch.
"No," he said. "I want to be BCS eligible. … We've got five games left. We're wanting to win the Big East and we know what we've got ahead of us."
Grothe, back with the "Grohawk" haircut he had last season, threw three touchdowns and ran for a fourth, passing for 248 yards and running for a team-high 72 to delight a homecoming crowd announced at 51,384 at Raymond James Stadium.
He was exceptionally accurate on USF's six touchdown drives, going 15-for-18 for 211 yards on those possessions. He watched the closing minutes from the sideline, wearing a white Rays cap that also had the USF logo.
"I thought Matt played extremely well," said coach Jim Leavitt, whose team led 21-13 at halftime as Syracuse (1-6, 0-3) got 106 first-half yards from running back Curtis Brinkley.
USF's defense crushed the Orange in the second half, holding Syracuse to 9 total yards and zero first downs. Brinkley was held to 6 yards on six carries after halftime. The senior said after the game that USF's defense played "dirty" and took "cheap shots" at him during the game.
"We went dormant on offense," said coach Greg Robinson, who has lost four games to USF by an average of 27 points.
The defense's biggest play came in the third quarter, when tackle Aaron Harris sacked Syracuse's Cameron Dantley at the Orange 8 and forced a fumble that Craig Marshall returned to the 1.
On the next play, Syracuse left USF receiver A.J. Love uncovered, and Grothe lobbed him an easy touchdown pass.
"It was the easiest catch I've ever had," the sophomore from Bradenton Southeast said. "I just waved at (Grothe). The first thing we're taught to do when we line up is read the coverage. There was nobody to read because no one was there, so I gave him the heads-up."
Grothe's other two touchdown passes went to senior Taurus Johnson, who set the tone in the second quarter with a block that knocked off the helmet of safety Max Suter.
"He wasn't looking. My eyes got big, I had my tongue hanging out of my mouth. I said, 'This is going to be a hit right here," Johnson said. "It feels good to get one of those every now and then."
The defense got a boost from the return of three injured starters — linebacker Brouce Mompremier, who suffered a serious neck injury four weeks ago, and end George Selvie and tackle Terrell McClain, who had been slowed by ankle injuries. Selvie had half a sack and end Jarriett Buie had two.
Syracuse, which held the ball 19:09 in the first half, had it just 6:40 in the second, unable to move the chains once.
"It's amazing — you go out and play like we did in the first half, go in and do a couple little (adjustments)," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "It wasn't that, really. They played harder and accepted the challenge to play better."
A year ago, USF had lost three in a row, then rebounded with a 41-10 win at Syracuse, the first of three straight victories to end the regular season. The Bulls next play at Louisville and at Cincinnati in a span of five days, hoping for the same effect.
"We had a little more time to invest since we had the bye week," Leavitt said. "We didn't spend as much as you would think on Syracuse. We spent more time on the University of South Florida."