USF's second-half magic intact

Published September 17, 2006

ORLANDO - They are not dominating. As a whole, they are not even that pretty. But if you're looking for a wild finish on a Saturday, stop by a USF game late in the third quarter.

That's generally about when the Bulls themselves are showing up.

For the third week in a row, that was enough for a compelling, exciting, emotional victory, this one a 24-17 thriller over rival Central Florida on Saturday that gives the Bulls the second 3-0 start in their 10-year history.

Before a Citrus Bowl crowd of 46,708, the Bulls tied the score on the final play of the third quarter, then took a touchdown lead only to see it disappear on another special-teams breakdown. And again, redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Grothe - with his legs and his arm - led USF to victory, throwing a 27-yard touchdown to Ean Randolph for the go-ahead score with 3:20 to play.

"I hate it, but I like it," said Grothe, who threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns. "They were saying out on the field that we're the Comeback Kids. We are."

Such comebacks and close games are new to the Bulls, who have trailed late in the third quarter of all three wins this season. Before last week's 21-20 win against Florida International, on another Grothe touchdown pass with 2:33 to play, the Bulls' previous nine wins had all been by at least 14 points.

"Unbelievable. I'm about to have a heart attack," coach Jim Leavitt said.

Grothe, in his second career start, carried the offense, completing 67 percent of his passes and rushing 21 times for 73 yards. One of the youngest players on the field accounted for 86.6 percent of the Bulls' offensive yards.

Down 10-7 at halftime, unable to run consistently, the Bulls tied the score on a 30-yard field goal by Mike Benzer to end the third quarter. A trick play - a double reverse that saw receiver Amarri Jackson find a wide-open Amp Hill for a 31-yard gain to the 1-yard line - set up a 2-yard Grothe pass that put USF ahead 17-10 with 11:05 left.

UCF came back in dramatic fashion, as freshman USF punter Delbert Alvarado fumbled a snap, scrambled right and had a desperation kick blocked and returned 31 yards for a Knights touchdown. That tied it, and brought the third-biggest crowd in UCF history to a frenzy.

Cue the Grothe late-game rally. Starting on his 10, he led the Bulls 90 yards, completing his first three passes and running 26 and 13 yards for first downs. After a sack and incompletion, he faced third and 14 from the UCF 27, and coolly hit Randolph in the end zone for a 24-17 lead.

UCF wasn't done, as quarterback Steven Moffett started his own drive, converting fourth and 10 at midfield in taking UCF from its 20 to the USF 14. But after missing on two shots to the end zone, Moffett faced fourth and 6 from the 10, and Bulls freshman defensive end Chris Robinson forced a fumble that ended the last rally.

An emotional Leavitt sprinted from midfield to the corner of the stadium where a large Bulls contingent cheered, raising the index and pinky fingers to for the Bulls sign in both hands.

"Character won out. The guys played, they finished and they fought," Leavitt said. "They fought as hard as they possibly could."

They did so with much on the line, playing only the second in-state road game in their history against a program seeking revenge for last year's 31-14 loss in Tampa.

Grothe had the first 300-yard passing game by a USF quarterback in nearly two years, since Pat Julmiste threw for 324 at TCU in September 2004. No Bull has thrown three touchdowns since Ronnie Banks against Nicholls State in 2003.

The Bulls take a 3-0 record to Kansas for their final nonconference tuneup before opening Big East play Sept. 29 at home against Rutgers. For a few minutes Saturday, the Bulls could savor a close win against a close rival, escaping with another year of bragging rights.

"This is the best feeling in the world right now," Grothe said at midfield after the game. "Maybe it will shut some of these fans up."