Bulls shaky, then solid in opener against I-AA foe

USF trails McNeese State for much of the game before owning the fourth quarter.

Published September 3, 2006

TAMPA - For a half and then some Saturday, as USF found itself foundering and inexplicably trailing Division I-AA opponent McNeese State, it seemed the Bulls' long summer of off-field problems would spill into its 2006 season.

But with a promising flurry of offense that produced four touchdowns in a span of 11 minutes, the Bulls found themselves, put away the pesky Cowboys and found a real playmaker at quarterback along the way.

Redshirt freshman, Matt Grothe, stepping in for injured starter Pat Julmiste in the second quarter, ran for one score and passed for two, sparking the Bulls to a come-from-behind 41-10 victory.

As much as the Bulls struggled early - they did not lead until a Grothe touchdown run with 2:04 left in the third quarter - they were dominant the rest of the way, making the game the runaway win it was thought to be.

The Bulls defense was as dominant as expected, as McNeese's only touchdown came on a botched punt that resulted in a fumble recovered in the end zone for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.

The Bulls came in 9-0 in home openers, having won their past 16 against Division I-AA opponents, dating to when the Bulls were in I-AA themselves. If the Bulls didn't take the opponent lightly, their fans did, with the crowd at Raymond James Stadium, announced at 26,531, represented the Bulls' smallest showing since 2004.

Julmiste, a senior who entered the season with 23 career starts, earned Saturday's start but was largely ineffective running the Bulls' offense. A batted pass was intercepted to end USF's first drive at the McNeese 22, and the Bulls trailed 7-0 when he left with an injury early in the second quarter.

Enter Grothe, a redshirt freshman from Lakeland Lake Gibson, who completed his first pass, ran for first downs on his first two carries and capped the drive with a 1-yard keeper for a touchdown.

In the third quarter, he would show off an accurate young arm, hitting tight end Cedric Hill in stride for a 64-yard gain. Only one pass play all of last season was longer for USF. A fumbled handoff kept that big play from producing points, but on the next drive, Grothe found receiver Marcus Edwards in stride for a 47-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead.

After a blocked punt, Grothe put the game away with a 10-yard touchdown to Ean Randolph, and former walk-on Walt Smith, filling in at running back, scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Freshman running back Keeley Dorsey scored on a 52-yard run as time expired for the final score.

The Bulls played without three key players who were suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. In recent months, USF made headlines for recruits failing to qualify academically and former quarterback Carlton Hill transferring to a junior college after a drug arrest and academic troubles.

What better to put those things in the past than what ended up being a dominant win on the scoreboard, even if it started with one ugly half.

The Bulls imploded on one first-quarter drive, starting with a holding penalty on tackle Jared Carnes that negated a 29-yard pass play. Another holding penalty backed USF up to its 5-yard line, and after three running plays, the Bulls were set to punt from their 9.

The snap from Ryan Bordeau was low, and punter Ilia Petrov, a freshman walk-on, struggled to collect the ball, and as he tried a quick kick to the side, he missed the ball entirely. McNeese State's Jared Dolan recovered the ball in the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

Early on, even the good breaks couldn't be converted by USF. A blocked punt by cornerback Trae Williams set the Bulls up on the McNeese 25 with 1:49 left in the half. Three plays later, sophomore Mike Benzer's field-goal attempt from 40 yards was no good after hitting off an upright.