Little did fans know a backup quarterback would fill the void left by running back Andre Hall.
After starting quarterback Pat Julmiste injured his thigh and potential starter Carlton Hill left the team, redshirt freshman Matt Grothe stepped in and became an essential component of the Bulls offense, much like Hall was last season.
Grothe entered USF’s opener against McNeese State completing 9-13 passes for 171 yards and a total of three recorded touchdowns.
After the season opener, Grothe was arguably among the best freshman players in the NCAA, just as Hall was thought to be among the nation’s best rushers last year.
On the ground, Grothe gained 778 yards and nine touchdowns as the Bulls struggled to find consistent production from running backs Ricky Ponton, Walt Smith and Ben Williams.
“We limited Matt (Grothe) early, but when our running backs got banged up we had to use him more,” offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “We force-fed him a little bit and he took (the offense) and ran with it.”
Grothe finished the season as the team’s leading rusher, while Julmiste ranked fourth on the team with 127 yards.
Grothe has not only defeated teams with his legs, he’s also close to becoming the best first-year passer in team history, already surpassing Marquel Blackwell’s freshman record of 1,620 passing yards.
Smith coached Blackwell for two seasons as the quarterbacks’ coach, a position he held for four seasons before being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2005. He said Grothe and Blackwell share many similarities.
“Both of them really understood the game of football,” Smith said. “Marquel was a terrific quarterback but Matt is doing it against tougher competition. So you have to give him that.”
Through 12 games, Grothe has thrown for 2,495 yards, 14 touchdowns, completed 63.9 percent of his passes for an efficiency rating of 138.04. For the year, Grothe has accounted for 70.26 percent of USF’s offense.
“Matt has emerged as a terrific player,” Smith said. “I saw it in the spring, but overall it’s been a wonderful season for him so far.”
If Grothe can throw two touchdowns against East Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl, he’ll tie Blackwell’s freshman record for passing touchdowns in a season with 16.
Last year, the Bulls made their first bowl appearance as a primarily rushing team behind the record-breaking performances of Hall.
The running back accounted for 40.74 percent of the Bulls offense a year ago and scored 15 of USF’s 35 touchdowns during the 2005 season.
Hall accounted for 1,434 rushing yards with 13 touchdowns and averaged a USF record with 114.5 yards per game.
“Last year we had a great back in Andre (Hall),” Smith said. “We just wanted to make sure No. 2 would touch the ball 25 to 30 times to give us our best chance to win.”
Much like Grothe, Hall was a double threat as he led the team in rushing as well as receiving with 321 yards and two scores.
When USF reached the Meineke Car Care Bowl last year, Hall had to face one of the nation’s most talented defensive lines in North Carolina State. Three players from the Wolfpack were selected in the first 26 selections of last year’s NFL’s draft, including No. 1 overall selection Mario Williams.
North Carolina State shutout the Bulls 14-0, but Hall was the lone bright spot on the USF offense, running for 127 yards on 19 carries.
Grothe hopes to accomplish what Hall was unable to last season: win a bowl game.
The Pirates rank 43rd in the nation in passing defense, allowing 188.67 passing yards per game.
During the last meeting with the Pirates in 2004, Julmiste led the Bulls to a 41-17 victory by completing 12-16 passes for 233 yards.
But the previous success doesn’t mean much when teams meet in a post-season contest.
Coach Jim Leavitt said he feels East Carolina has improved dramatically since the last time the two teams have played, especially after Skip Holtz was brought in as head coach since the loss to USF.
“I don’t think you can go by any of the history,” Leavitt said. “They’re a different program with coach Holtz. There are a few players left from the last time we played them, but for the most part, everything is different.”
With Grothe taking snaps under center, Smith said he likes the Bull’s chances for earning their first bowl victory.
“Matt is a really poised player, and anytime you have a player like that, you have a chance to win,” Smith said. “He’s a winner, he’s done some things for us and we need him to do it for one more game.”