Most teams strive to play the best football they can in the fourth quarter. This year, the South Florida Bulls seem to play their best football in the third quarter.
Saturday against Syracuse was no different.
Despite holding a slim lead at the half, the No. 16 Bulls (6-1) crushed the Orange (1-6) 45-13, outscoring their Big East foe 14-0 in the third quarter in front of a Homecoming crowd of 51,384.
“It’s amazing, you know,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. ”We go out there and play like we do in the first half. Then we make just a couple adjustments for the second half. Our guys play harder, and they accept the challenge to play better in the third quarter.”
Syracuse running back Curtis Brinkley trounced the South Florida defense in the opening half for 106 yards rushing, scoring one touchdown. However, USF’s defense, which has helped the team outscore opponents 59-7 in third quarters this year, went on to squeeze the Orange offense — giving up just nine yards and zero first downs — in the second half.
“Wally and the defensive staff did a great job at halftime,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “There were a number of adjustments that were made at halftime, and the guys responded really well.”
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came midway through the third quarter, with USF holding a 21-13 lead. Junior defensive tackle Aaron Harris sliced through the Orange offensive line and sacked Syracuse quarterback Cameron Dantley — forcing the ball from his hands. South Florida defensive end Craig Marshall scooped up the fumble and returned it to the Orange 1-yard line.
Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson said that play was the turning point in the game.
“All in all I thought, ‘Wow, it looked like we had it going there for a bit,'” he said. “We came out in the second half, we stopped them and then we had the turnover.”
The Bulls offense made quick work of the blunder. Junior quarterback Matt Grothe found sophomore wide receiver A.J. Love uncovered in the end zone to extend the South Florida lead to 28-13 with 6:53 remaining in the third quarter.
Leavitt said the play gave the team momentum for the remainder of the game.
“It was huge. It was so big,” he said. “We fumbled before that, and they got the ball in good field position. Then we got the fumble, and to get it on the 1-yard line was just huge for our team.”
Grothe threw for three touchdowns — moving him into second (41) on USF’s all-time career passing touchdowns list behind Marquel Blackwell (67) — and rushed for one more.
Offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said it was what Grothe needed after coming off a poor outing in the loss against Pittsburgh.
“Pitt put pressure on him,” he said. “They really got to him in that game. But, we made plays today. Last week he couldn’t hit a corner route when the guy was open, but this week a receiver makes a great play when he is covered like glue.”
Senior wide receiver Taurus Johnson made that “great play” late in the third quarter. Grothe hit Johnson in the middle of the end zone with a pass. Johnson snatched the ball out of Syracuse defensive back Mike Holmes’ hands for a 9-yard touchdown with 0:12 remaining in the quarter. The touchdown gave USF a 35-13 lead and seemingly put the game out of reach.
“Matt (Grothe) saw me coming across the middle,” Johnson said about the reception. “The defender had a good hand on it, but I just ripped it out of his hands. We ran our offense well that whole quarter.”
Johnson and Grothe hooked up for one of the Bulls’ three first-half touchdowns. Senior Ben Williams rushed for a touchdown on USF’s first offensive possession, and Grothe rushed for an 11-yard touchdown to give South Florida a 21-13 lead at halftime.
Burnham said the return of two key players back from injury made the difference, especially when the team was getting tired in the second half. Senior linebacker Brouce Mompremier and All-American junior defensive end George Selvie started for the first time since playing Florida International University on Sept. 20.
“I could hardly even tell Brouce had been gone he played so well,” Burnham said. “George is still tender … but Brouce didn’t even look like he had ever been out. Having those guys back was a key for us.”
Mompremier said he felt like nothing had changed.
“I felt good out there,” he said. “It was too good to get my feet set under me.”
Leavitt said he wanted the team to remain focused and not let losses pile up like they did last season, when USF had a three-game losing streak.
“I thought we had more time to invest with a bye week last week,” he said. “But, we didn’t spend as much time on Syracuse as you’d think. Instead we focused more on the University of South Florida. We played so poorly the week before, so we tried to get ourselves together.”