ST. PETERSBURG — The first day of bowl season wasn't when the Bulls wanted to finish their year.
A half-full baseball stadium a half-hour from campus wasn't where USF wanted to finish what started as 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 came in the first Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., two years ago.
"In the history of college football, how many teams will be able to someday say they won the inaugural bowl of two different bowls?" he said.
"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 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 fewer than 2,000 seats. USF didn't even sell out its allotment, distributing 8,500 tickets.
If Grothe had played more games like he did Saturday, the Bulls still might 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. He threw three touchdowns and became 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 didn't throw an interception for the first time since Oct. 18 against Syracuse. "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 the game with 10,242 yards of total offense, 100 more than West Virginia senior quarterback Pat White.
Receiver Dontavia Bogan's 56-yard kickoff return set up Grothe's first touchdown, to Taurus Johnson, just 62 seconds into the game. His second touchdown put USF up 24-7, and Memphis didn't get closer than 10 points, held scoreless in the second half by a defense that allowed 238 yards for the game.
Grothe's last touchdown went to Bogan, and he watched the fourth quarter from the sideline, a refreshing change after being knocked out of his past 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 stung for months. Now the Bulls have the consolation of positive momentum, knowing this was a Stephen Stills 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."