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A DISCONCERTING VICTORY

USF allows lowly Western Kentucky to hang around before pulling away in the fourth quarter.

Another week, another cupcake and another slow start for USF, which stumbled 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 coming against a team believed by some to be the worst in Division I-A football, the margin wasn't reassuring.

USF quarterback Matt Grothe threw for two touchdowns 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' opening win against Wofford.

The Bulls (2-0) actually trailed 3-0 in the first quarter then scored two touchdowns. But for the second week in a row, they had a single-digit halftime lead against a lesser opponent, up 14-6.

Facing a defense that gave up 380 rushing yards to Tennessee last week, USF got solid running from senior Mo Plancher, who finished with 115 yards - the most for a USF player since November 2007 - and two touchdowns on 18 carries.

USF could have scored more, but Delbert Alvarado missed field goals of 40 and 49 yards, both wide left. The Hilltoppers' first field goal came after a special teams mistake as redshirt freshman George Baker let a punt bounce off of him in coverage and Western Kentucky recovered the loose ball at the USF 34.

Grothe, who passed for 208 yards, found Carlton Mitchell on a crossing route that went 50 yards to the 1, 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.

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 four times in a new formation that had Grothe lined up at receiver.

But Western Kentucky (0-2), in only its second full season as a Division I-A team, countered with a USF personal foul penalty keeping a drive alive and then scoring to cut the Bulls' lead to 21-13 late in the third 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.

Overall, there was a sense of inconsistency on both sides of the ball. USF struggled on the road against a Sun Belt team last season, eking out a 17-9 win at Florida International when the Panthers opened their stadium.

The Bulls have one more lightweight on their schedule as I-AA Charleston Southern coming to Tampa next week. Then USF has a huge opportunity, playing at Florida State, which struggled and barely beat I-AA Jacksonville State on Saturday.

Times writer Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.

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