FORT LAUDERDALE – The USF Bulls might not have looked like the No. 6 football team in the country Saturday, but they still managed to do the one thing expected of Top 10 teams: they won the game.
At Florida Atlantic’s Lockhart Stadium, the Bulls committed four turnovers, lost the time of possession battle and allowed a Sun Belt Conference team with two losses to put up nearly as many yards against them as then-No. 5 West Virginia did the week before.
However, thanks to a breakout performance by running back Ben Williams and a team determination to follow their season motto of “finish strong,” the Bulls managed to escape with a messy 35-23 win in their debut as a Top 10 team.
“I was really proud of our football team tonight,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “I thought they did a great job handling all the adversity and the turnovers and so forth. They kept battling.”
While USF never trailed in the game, Florida Atlantic could have easily taken the lead numerous times during the contest.
On USF’s first drive of the game, Florida Atlantic defensive back Tavious Polo gave the Owls an early break by forcing a fumble off Bulls’ tight end Cedric Hill. FAU converted two more turnovers before halftime, recovering a Jamar Taylor fumble and intercepting an errant pass by Bulls’ quarterback Matt Grothe.
“We played decent throughout the game but in the first half we just looked sloppy,” Grothe said. “It was probably the worst we’ve looked all year.”
Despite getting three takeaways in USF territory in the first half, the Owls were unable to convert any of the turnovers into points.
Owls’ kicker Warley Leroy – who was 8-of-10 on field goals before Friday – missed three first-half attempts, forcing Florida Atlantic to head into halftime with a 7-7 tie.
The Bulls were able to take one positive thing away from an otherwise disappointing first half against the Owls.
On FAU’s first drive of the game, Bulls’ defensive end George Selvie brought down Owls’ quarterback Rusty Smith, giving him 10.5 sacks on the season and breaking Terrance Royal’s USF single season sack record of 10.
After gaining only 45 yards in the ground in the first half, the USF offense came out in the second half looking to establish a running game.
And it did just that.
After rushing for 24 yards with one fumble and one touchdown in the first half, Williams finished the day with 186 yards and a school-record four rushing touchdowns.
“After the fumble I was very upset, but you’ve got to let that go and keep playing the game,” Williams said. “I just got out there and ran the ball. I did the best I could when the ball was in my hands.”
When Williams wasn’t carrying the ball during the second half, Grothe was.
The sophomore quarterback had the first 100-yard game of this collegiate career, rushing for 120 yards, and was the only other USF player to score a touchdown in the game. On a fourth-down play in the third quarter, Grothe broke through the line on a quarterback draw and broke several tackles on a 32-yard touchdown run.
“He pulls that stuff all the time,” center Nick Capogna said of Grothe’s touchdown run. “So you can never stop blocking. The play is never really over when you have him back there.”
The USF defense struggled at times in second half, allowing the Owls to gain 240 yards and score 16 points after the break. However, with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, the Bulls’ defense forced the FAU offense into consecutive three-and-outs to secure the win.
Linebacker Ben Moffitt finished the game with a team-high 10 tackles, while defensive back Trae Williams got his second interception of the season against the Owls.
The Bulls’ performance Friday might not have looked like that of a Top 10 team, but the Bulls – No. 5 in the latest AP poll – did what they had to do to win the game.
While it wasn’t an impressive victory, the team feels that its ability to overcome such adversity is a testament to how far they’ve come since joining the ranks of the college football elite.
“We did a good job playing against a team that was really looking forward to playing us,” Grothe said. “We were coming off a big home win against West Virginia and I honestly think – if we would have played this team last year after beating West Virginia -we would have lost.”