Without a conference championship in its short history, USF presents a challenge when debating its greatest point ever scored. Key plays in several of the biggest upsets have put USF on the map in the past five years.
The Bulls have beaten higher-ranked opponents, but the win that set in motion USF's great run to No. 2 in the nation in 2007 came Sept. 8, when the Bulls went into Auburn and shocked the No. 17 Tigers with a 26-23 win in overtime at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The winning score — keeping USF perfect in its history in overtime — was a 14-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Grothe to receiver Jessie Hester Jr.
Quite a first
The touchdown reception was the first of Hester's career, on a play he remembers as "Shin 560 Shin Elbow," something they'd drilled extensively in the days leading up to the Auburn game. "I knew it would be open after reading the coverage," he said. "I knew it would be there. Everything that happened the way it did that night, it was incredible."
Hester was the nearest of three receivers on the left side, and as the outside receivers stopped for short routes, Hester made a cut left to the left corner, pulling away from safety Eric Brock, and Grothe threw a low pass that Hester pulled in for the score, silencing the Auburn crowd.
"It was crazy," Hester said. "You didn't hear a thing, except the USF fans and my teammates."
The image of Hester raising the ball in celebration, passing in front of an official raising his hands to signal a touchdown with a dejected Auburn student section in the background, is one of the most memorable moments in USF's 15-year history. The victory led to USF's first national ranking, and the Bulls won their next four games to rise to No. 2 in the national polls, sparking USF's first sellouts at Raymond James Stadium against West Virginia and Central Florida.
"This win at Auburn," ESPN's broadcasters said that night, "is a program-maker."
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Former USF coach Jim Leavitt is quick to point out the other major plays that made Grothe-to-Hester possible. Fans might remember that kicker Delbert Alvarado missed four field goals in the second half and Leavitt stuck with him as Alvarado came through on a tying kick with 55 seconds left. Fans probably remember that cornerback Jerome Murphy had a wild 59-yard kickoff return to set up that field goal after Auburn took a 20-17 lead with less than three minutes left.
But how many remember how the Bulls got to the 14-yard line in overtime? Trailing 23-20, USF was faced with a fourth-and-1 call at the 16, and Leavitt decided to go for it, with Grothe converting a 2-yard keeper to the left. Grothe carried the ball on four of USF's first five plays in overtime, another reason why a safety might have been slow in picking up a receiver as he watched for a potential run.
Where are they now?
Grothe has fully recovered from the knee injury that ended his USF career early in his senior year in 2009, and he has yet to play in a pro game after tryouts and short stints in the NFL, UFL, CFL and Arena League. He is now trying out with the Tampa Bay Storm. Between pro workouts, he worked this past season as a substitute teacher at his alma mater, Lake Gibson High School. Hester, who graduated with a degree in criminology, is still in Tampa, working as a manager at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and hoping to soon enter the police academy and join the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
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