TAMPA — It won't always be this easy — it really can't be, frankly — but openers don't come much more dominating than USF's 56-7 drubbing of Division I-AA's Tennessee-Martin on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.
"The thing I'm happiest about is that sometimes we've played a team like that and we haven't done what we were supposed to do," coach Jim Leavitt said.
The opening quarter went so near-perfectly, with four touchdowns on the first four possessions, that quarterback Matt Grothe was on the bench after just one quarter.
"What was the score, 28-0?" Leavitt said about the early exit. "That was why. I didn't think we had the game won, but I thought we were playing decent."
After an interception by backup Grant Gregory, Grothe was back. But it was little more than an encore, a chance for one more touchdown before calling it a night at halftime.
"It'd be nice if all of them would be like that," said Grothe, who finished 6-of-8 for 96 yards and two scores. "There was a lot of talk before the game about the last two years, so we wanted to come out and score some points."
USF struggled in openers against I-AA teams the past two seasons, eking past Elon 28-13 last year and leading McNeese State 13-10 in the fourth before pulling away.
This time, there was no trouble, as a crowd of 48,058, the most for a USF opener since the program's first game in 1997, looked on. The defense pitched a shutout with the only points coming off a fumble return, and the Bulls held the Skyhawks to 97 total yards, 23 off the school record set in that first-ever game against Kentucky Wesleyan.
"We wanted to set the tone early, especially on defense," said safety Carlton Williams, who had an interception. "Once you start, you don't want to let anybody get momentum. Our goal was to keep going and keep going and don't let up."
The Bulls scored four touchdowns among their first 18 plays, going to third down only once. Grothe found Jessie Hester for the first of two touchdowns. Mike Ford had touchdown runs of 4 and 6 yards with Ben Williams going 12 yards for the fourth score.
Senior Marcus Edwards set a USF record with 124 yards on seven punt returns, all in the first half. Dunedin's Theo Wilson took a punt blocked by walk-on Cameron Perkins and returned it 67 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee-Martin, which got $300,000 to come to Tampa for its first game against a major conference opponent, scored only when USF brought in freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels. Daniels fumbled on his third play, and D.J. Miller returned it 72 yards for a touchdown. At that point, the Skyhawks offense had totaled 52 yards of offense for the entire game.
Daniels recovered nicely, finding Dontavia Bogan for passes of 36 and 20 yards on the next drive, which was spoiled when receiver Ed Alcin fumbled into the pylon for a touchback. Daniels finished 4-for-4 for 86 yards.
"When he fumbled, he had to make a decision: How is he going to deal with adversity," Leavitt said. "He got back in there, threw some good balls, moved around the pocket well. I think that's very important that a guy can do that."
USF piled up 520 yards of offense despite substituting liberally, allowing several reserves and even walk-ons to make their college debuts.
After the sting of a 35-point loss to Oregon in the Sun Bowl had lingered for eight months, the Bulls now have confidence heading into next week's game at Central Florida.
"I do recognize we've got different teams ahead," Leavitt said. "And I think our team does, too. We understand Central Florida. We understand how good they are; the tall order to go into Bright House (Stadium) and compete with them. It's going to be a big challenge for us. We're going to have to play a great game to beat them."