That shiny Papajohns.com Bowl trophy sitting alone in the Athletic Building is a start, but USF is on the verge of making its debut in a big-name bowl.
Jim Leavitt and the Bulls have the potential to be last year’s Rutgers, giving Louisville and West Virginia a run at the Big East Championship and a spot in a BCS bowl – or possibly the Gator Bowl. But first, the following must happen for USF:
Emergence at running back
We knew there would be a drop-off at the running back position last year with the absence of Andre Hall, who rewrote the school’s record book. We didn’t know a freshman quarterback would lead the Bulls in rushing.
Matt Grothe was outstanding as both a passer and a runner, finishing second in the Big East in total offense. In order for USF to rise to the top of the conference, however, Grothe needs some help running the ball.
It’s unknown who will get the bulk of the carries, but the Bulls’ running game should improve with the addition of highly touted Mike Ford and the return of a more-experienced Ben Williams.
Ford set a state record with 2,836 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior at Sarasota High. The only problem – his senior season was in 2004. If he can prove he’s still at that level, Ford will be a key contributor to USF’s offense, but until he plays in some games, the key word is “if.”
Williams started 12 games last season and was MVP of the Bulls’ bowl victory, but he finished the season with nearly 200 rushing yards less than Grothe.
Whether it’s Ford, Williams or someone else, USF needs a running back to out-rush its quarterback.
Grothe be Grothe
Who knew when he came off the bench in the first game last season that a year later Grothe would have his own billboard on Fowler Avenue?
Grothe is getting all the accolades he deserves after carrying the Bulls on his back as a freshman, and if he lives up to the hype that’s surrounding him now, he’ll be well on his way to passing Marquel Blackwell as the best quarterback in school history.
Amarri Jackson put it best at USF’s Media Day earlier this month: “It’s getting scary to me because he’s a sophomore and he’s getting a lot better.”
If Grothe does better than the 2,576 passing yards he had last year, it’ll be a memorable season for the Bulls. Even if he just equals last year’s stats, USF will be in good shape.
The key for Grothe is to stay healthy, and after adding 20 pounds in the offseason, he’ll be more durable. If he gets the help he needs from the running backs, he’ll be far less prone to injuries.
Playing from behind became far too common early last season, as the Bulls trailed at halftime in their first three games. If USF hopes to hang with the big boys in the Big East, it can’t afford to show any rust this time around.
With a cupcake game to open the season – at home against Division I-AA Elon – the Bulls travel to Auburn in week two in a game that could set the tone for the season.
If USF can pull off the upset against the Tigers, it’ll be ranked heading into a home stand against North Carolina and West Virginia.
So far, not so good.
In the first eight days of practice, nine offensive linemen suffered injuries. A healthy offensive line is crucial for a team that saw only one position with the same starter (center, Nick Capogna) in every game last season.
Wide receiver Colby Erskin, who was listed as a starter in the preseason depth chart, tore his ACL after just six days of practice, and probable starting linebacker Chris Robinson has missed practice time with an ankle injury.
Grothe has recovered from his foot injuries and broken leg from last season, but now he’s dealing with a hip injury.
USF coaches aren’t making a big deal about Grothe’s hip, but he’s going to need five healthy bodyguards in front of him to repeat the success he had last year.
Fill the Seats
The final key to the Bulls making it to a more prominent bowl than the past two seasons lies in the hands of the fans. The 30,222 fans who showed up at each home game last season aren’t enough to intimidate a visiting team.
With the home schedule USF has – West Virginia, UCF and Louisville – there’s no reason the upper bowl at Raymond James Stadium shouldn’t start filling up this season.
I know the apathy that USF athletics gets doesn’t come from those who follow the teams. Most people who read about the Bulls in the newspapers are the ones who show up to the games, so they can’t be blamed for the empty seats. But the bottom line is that if USF is ever going to be considered a powerhouse, the Ray Jay needs to be a rough place for road teams to play.
Not to mention: the more fans bowl representatives see at the games, the bigger the bowl game the Bulls will be