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Stumbling Bulls hit stride just in time to avert upset

Grothe makes stubborn Florida International pay for its late fumble, throwing a 29-yard touchdown in the final 3 minutes.

By GREG AUMAN
Published September 10, 2006


TAMPA - You'd think USF would have learned something from last weekend's opener, when the Bulls started slowly and trailed in the third quarter to lowly McNeese State, only to pull away to a 41-10 win.

What did they learn? With enough defense to keep you in the game, it's never too late for a Matt Grothe comeback.

Sputtering and struggling against a fledgling Florida International program for 57 minutes, the Bulls again avoided a humbling upset, escaping with a 21-20 victory on a 29-yard touchdown from Grothe to receiver Taurus Johnson with 2:33 left. The Bulls defense, which had two fourth-down stops, forced a fumble in FIU territory to set up the winning touchdown.

"I told (linebacker Stephen Nicholas) if he got us the ball back, we'd score on the last drive," said Grothe, a redshirt freshman who passed for 174 yards in his first college start. "God works in mysterious ways, and that fumble was a miracle."

The late touchdown kept the Bulls from being upstaged by their younger in-state rival before a crowd of 27,114, and kept FIU (0-2) from what would have been the biggest victory in its five-year history. While the come-from-behind win was thrilling, the Bulls' mistake-filled, penalty-ridden play - three turnovers, two touchdowns negated by flags, a missed field goal - had them trailing 20-7 in the third quarter, leaving coach Jim Leavitt far from happy about where his team is after two games.

"I'm very proud of our football team. You can't come back and win a game like that if you don't have great character," Leavitt said. "Like last week, we made a lot of errors. The penalties, the discipline, we won't win again this year if we don't change right away. The teams we're facing are too good. We're playing like a very young, inexperienced football team."

If Grothe was introduced as a star in last weekend's win, Saturday belonged to Johnson, a sophomore who scored USF's other offensive touchdown, a 14-yard reverse in which six FIU defenders got a hand on him before he found the end zone. Senior Ean Randolph had two touchdowns on punt returns called back, but had one flag-free that went 76 yards for the Bulls' first score.

Most of the night, the game belonged to FIU, which had beaten only three Division I-A teams since playing its first game in 2002. With a tough defense, solid special teams and pinpoint passing from senior quarterback Josh Padrick, FIU got out to a 20-7 halftime lead, helped plenty by penalties and miscues from the Bulls. Receiver Chandler Williams had a huge game for the Panthers, returning a punt 82 yards for a touchdown and catching 10 passes for 129 yards.

Ahead 20-14, FIU took a gamble on the first play of the fourth quarter, going for it on fourth and 1 from the USF 20. Linebacker Patrick St. Louis correctly read a Padrick keeper on the left side and stuffed him for no gain. Given that break, the Bulls offense followed with a punt and an interception. USF buckled down defensively - after Padrick went 16-for-20 in the first three quarters, he completed just four of his last 13 passes.

Grothe fell short in his first attempt to rally the Bulls with a fourth-quarter drive. He completed a 19-yard pass to Johnson, ran for 15 and hit Johnson for another 12 yards, but the drive stalled at the FIU 30-yard line. Going for it on fourth and 3 with less than four minutes to play, Grothe threw a pass that sailed well high of Johnson. He'd get one more chance.

Linebacker Ben Moffitt forced a fumble from FIU's Julian Reams on third down that was recovered by defensive tackle Richard Clebert. Two plays later, Grothe found Johnson for the winning score, washing away a ton of mistakes.

They won't be as lucky with that kind of slow start when the Big East schedule starts in three weeks, or for that matter, on Saturday at UCF.

"There's a lot of things we have to clean up," Moffitt said. "This magnifies your mistakes, helps you focus on what you do wrong so you can fix it. We're going to go in this week, hold ourselves accountable and get it fixed."