TAMPA -The Bulls wanted to bounce back. And not only did they do just that Saturday, they did it convincingly.
USF (6-3, 2-2) took an early lead on Pittsburgh (6-3, 2-2), and unlike last season when it lost 31-17 at Heinz Field, held on for the 22-12 win at Raymond James Stadium.
Coming off a loss to Cincinnati on primetime television – a loss coach Jim Leavitt is still “bothered” by – the announced crowd of 35,671 was treated to seeing a better team than the one seen on ESPN on Oct. 22.
On top of a better performance, the Bulls became bowl eligible as well.
“What I was really impressed with was playing through the whole game,” Leavitt said. “I was really disappointed with our play (at Cincinnati). … It was a real big win for us. I thought one of the keys to the game was our offense being able to drive for first downs.”
Not only did the offense drive for first downs, special teams did it twice. Punter Justin Teachey converted two fourth down fake punts rushes of 11 and 14 yards, respectively.
The 11-yard rush extended the Bulls’ first drive of the game, which ended with a Taurus Johnson 22-yard touchdown run.
Teachey said Leavitt game him the option to punt or run, but decided to run, after hesitating, but then seeing that Pittsburgh didn’t have the punt block on.
“(Pittsburgh) just took off, and we had our regular coverage on,” Teachey said. “I took advantage of it. It wasn’t a designed fake, and I was going to kick it, but then (the Panthers) were gone.”
Other players were caught off guard by the first fake.
“I was on the fake side, cornerback Trae Williams said. “They called the punt, and I took off. Then I hear everyone cheering and I turn around, and (the Pittsburgh guy) is pointing, and Teachey had the first down.”
Added linebacker Brouce Mompremier, “I had no idea what was going on.”
The Bulls ended up trying other trick plays as well. Besides the two fake punts, Johnson’s score was on a double reverse, but USF went for a hook and ladder play, that resulted in a fumble and a pooch punt that turned into a Matt Grothe interception.
In the end, the Bulls had four turnovers, but none turned to be of consequence as the Panthers only capitalized three points out of them.
Chalk that up to the defense, who forced the Panthers to go three and out four times, to commit a safety and held them to just 214 yards, while only 50 came in the first quarter.
The pass rush, which had linebacker Stephen Nicholas grabbing two sacks, forced Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko to throw three interceptions, matching his season total. Palko came into the game leading the Big East in passing yards and in two games against USF had gone 34-of-49 for 614 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Past two years, he’s got something like 400 yards against us,” said Williams, who intercepted his sixth pass, a team-high that matches the second most in a season. “We knew he was going to be tough. (The defensive line) got so much pressure on him. And it was good, because the more and more pressure they get on him, the easy it makes our job that much easier.”
Grothe played better than he did two weeks ago, both passing and rushing. The redshirt freshman had a 1-yard score in the second quarter and hit receiver Amarri Jackson for a 46-yard string in the third. Even though Grothe escaped two near sacks, and the second he spun around the defender and hit receiver S.J. Green for a 22-yard pass.
“That was pretty unbelievable,” said. “It reminds you of (former Bulls quarterback Marquel)Blackwell. That’s exactly what I thought. It was pretty impressive.”
Grothe, however, aggravated an injury suffered to his right foot during the Connecticut game, and had to leave Saturday’s game during the fourth quarter. Grothe, who completed nine of his first 10 passes and went 19-of-21 for 180 yards passing in the game, is not expected to miss Saturday’s home finale against Syracuse.
Despite the four turnovers, the Bulls still won with ease as Pittsburgh’s lone touchdown came the fourth quarter on a 19-yard touchdown catch by Darrell Strong. However, Strong proceeded to raise his middle finger to some USF fans, flagging the Panthers with a personal foul and giving them 18 yards for just a two-point conversion.
Strong has since been suspended indefinitely by Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt.
But with 6 minutes left, the Bulls held on behind back up quarterback Pat Julmiste, and extended their record in Homecoming games to 7-3 after losing them the past two seasons to Army and West Virginia, respectively.
“This is a huge win because no one has been giving up any respect,” Mompremier said. “Whenever any one mentions the Big East it’s all Louisville, West Virginia, Rutgers, Pittsburgh. It’s never South Florida.
“But I rather be that way. I’d rather be the underdog. I mean those teams earned it from the wins they have – earned their respect. When we work hard, we’ll earn our respect, too.”