Running backs lend Bulls balance

Published October 22, 2006

Where there was a balancing act, there now is balance. Where there was one freshman running wild, there is now a full-fledged running game. Even the option play now has real options.

The emergence of running backs Ben Williams and Ricky Ponton in the past two games has taken a significant burden off quarterback Matt Grothe, who accounted for at least 84 percent of USF's total offense in each of his first four starts.

"It just makes our offense more and more of a threat," said Grothe, the redshirt freshman who leads the Bulls 5-2, 1-1 into a key Big East game at Cincinnati (3-4, 0-2) tonight. "We've had two guys go over 100 yards, so (defenses) have to worry about a lot more people and a lot more things going on."

Grothe had largely been USF's running game in his first month as starter, averaging 18 carries. In the same four-game stretch, USF's running backs totaled 84 yards on 45 carries, nonfactors with a 1.9-yard average.

That changed two weeks ago, when the Bulls, coming off back-to-back close losses to Kansas and Rutgers, got 108 yards and a touchdown from Williams, a 5-foot-9 walk-on from Lake Wales.

Then last weekend at North Carolina, Ponton, a sophomore back from a six-game suspension, had a career day, rushing 17 times for 101 yards and two scores.

"It gives us two running backs that can both run the ball and both block," coach Jim Leavitt said.

Ponton and Williams have the difficult task of replacing Andre Hall, the school's all-time leading rusher after a Big East-best 1,374 yards last season.

For all of Hall's success, the Bulls averaged 4.2 yards last year, and are up to 4.5 this season. With 15 rushing touchdowns in seven games, the Bulls are on pace to break the team record of 25 rushing scores in 2001.

The trio of Grothe, Ponton and Williams has given USF a new dimension of flexibility, challenging opposing defenses.

Ponton, whom Leavitt has kept off limits from interviews, was expected to shine after playing as Hall's top backup as a freshman. Williams has been the surprise star, making the most of an opportunity born of Ponton's suspension and a season-ending knee injury to freshman Moise Plancher.

"The run game hadn't been that successful in the past few games and it really bothered me," Williams said of his breakout game against Connecticut. "I wanted to give it a lot of effort to do well in that game, and I want to give that same effort the rest of these games."

Most walk-ons come to campus with "preferred" status, knowing they have at least a spot on the roster. Not Williams, who made the team out of an open tryout in the spring of 2005, having played only two years of varsity football at Lake Wales.

"I actually didn't think I did too well, but they called me after the tryout and coach (Carl) Franks told me to report for conditioning the next morning," said Williams, who played for former USF quarterback Chad Barnhardt, Lake Wales' coach.

Williams' size wasn't an issue in high school; he started on both sides of the ball as a senior, making plays as a 170-pound middle linebacker. His work ethic is such that Leavitt said he'll consider putting him on scholarship.

In addition to taking much of the load off Grothe, the running tandem of Ponton and Williams could help make USF's final five games more like the Bulls' last two dominating wins and less like the late rallies that were needed for their first three victories.

"We've got to be able to run and pass the ball. It's such a big threat," Williams said. "That's the easiest way to win games and not worry about having to come back all the time."

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf/.