TAMPA – The Bulls have always had a running game.Last season, it was Andre Hall. This season, it’s been Matt Grothe, since Hall’s replacement, Ricky Ponton, has been suspended for team rule violations until this week.
That was not the case for USF (4-2, 1-1) in Saturday’s 38-16 win against Connecticut (2-3, 0-1) in front of a crowd of 30,010 at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bulls found some balance in their offense. Actually, they found a running back for the first time in six games.
Who was it? Walk-on Ben Williams.
“What a great job Ben Williams did,” said coach Jim Leavitt, whose team was ranked 59th in rushing offense coming into the game. “I guess I better put him on scholarship.”
Not only did Williams make a case to earn a scholarship, but also made a bid to keep his starting job with the return of Ponton this week for the game against North Carolina.
The 5-foot-7, 190-pound sophomore from Lake Wales was the team’s second-leading rusher with 118 yards on 33 carries. Saturday was the night of his career, as Williams finished as the game’s leading rusher with 108 yards on 22 carries and his first career rushing touchdown: a 13-yard scamper in the first quarter.
“The whole bus ride, I’m going to have the biggest grin on my face,” Williams said. “Everyone congratulated me, and I did well tonight because of my line. They have always stayed behind me, and I fed off that.”
Grothe said Williams’ successful run helped balance the offense.
“At the beginning of the game, they (were saying), ‘Quarterback’s running every time,'” Grothe said. “Toward the third quarter they weren’t saying nothing because they didn’t know who was getting the ball.”
Grothe still did his share of running against Connecticut, which had the 10th-worst rushing defense in Division I-A. The redshirt freshman scored three rushing touchdowns and had 82 rushing yards.
The Bulls scored on their first play from scrimmage, a feat that had not been accomplished since Sept. 12, 1998, when a blocked punt resulted in a LaFann Williams rushing touchdown. Coincidentally, a blocked punt by cornerback Ryan Gilliam set up Grothe’s 7-yard run in the first quarter.
USF did get a scare when Grothe was injured on the first play of the second quarter. But he returned on USF’s next drive after team doctors examined his right foot. Grothe was told he strained the ligaments in his foot, but that didn’t stop him from rushing for two more touchdowns and throwing the first touchdown catch of receiver Amarri Jackson’s career.
“I don’t like sitting on the sidelines,” Grothe said. “I was going back in no matter what was wrong with (my foot).”
Last season, the Huskies sent the Bulls on a three-game losing streak, but USF stopped a two-game losing streak with the win Saturday.
Leavitt was impressed the Bulls had no turnovers. USF had five against Connecticut last season, when a 15-10 loss ended the Bulls’ hope of playing for a Big East title against West Virginia.
“It’s huge (not having turnovers),” Leavitt said. “Turnovers is probably the main stat that I go by. I don’t go by possession time; I really don’t go by rushing or passing offense. I go by turnovers. That was big.”
The Bulls were also efficient with their passing game, as Grothe finished 12-of-15 with 146 yards, and he was passing against a defense that came into the game with a No. 6-ranked pass defense. USF’s defense also shut down Connecticut’s running game, holding Terry Caulley to just 38 yards.
“How about this: Terry Caulley only had 38 yards rushing. That is the key,” Leavitt said.
But it was the first time the Bulls took a lead and kept it the whole game, and Grothe said it was nice not to have to catch up.
“It’s kind of nice to not have to worry,” Grothe said. “We needed this (win), big time.”