Bulls clearly erase ugly past

Bright skies and a big crowd greet USF, which puts a Cincinnati loss and Tyler Palko to rest.

Published November 5, 2006

TAMPA - Compared to the last time USF had played, Saturday's showdown with Pittsburgh was like night and day.

Want to wash away the ugly memory of a cold 23-6 loss at Cincinnati 13 days earlier? Why not come up with the exact opposite?

Warm weather. Big home crowd a season-high 35,671. Quarterback Matt Grothe back to his old self, making wild plays. USF's defense coming up with the key turnovers it lacked last time out. Even the wild, no-they-really-didn't fake punt worked out perfectly. Both times.

In the end, it was a convincing 22-12 win at Raymond James Stadium, rekindling much of the momentum the Bulls had lost against the Bearcats. The sun again shone on newly bowl-eligible USF's hopes for the rest of this season.

"November always decides what you do in December," linebacker Patrick St. Louis said. "There wasn't anybody out there worried about going to a bowl. Everybody is out there playing, and our main focus is to win. You play well in November, you're guaranteed a spot in December."

Pick up another home win this Saturday against Syracuse, winless in Big East play over the past two seasons, and the Bulls (6-3, 2-2 Big East) can end all doubts as to whether they're bowl-worthy. They looked that way Saturday.

"It's a real big win for us," coach Jim Leavitt said. "We wanted to start fast and finish strong. ... We were really struggling after the last game. I know I was really disappointed. Our guys came out ready to play, and the defense did a great job."

A relentless defense harassed Pitt senior Tyler Palko, who came in as the nation's No. 2 quarterback in pass efficiency. He had a Big East-leading 18 touchdown passes, and zero interceptions in his previous 108 throws. USF didn't need stats to remember him - last time he played in Tampa, Palko threw for 411 yards and five touchdowns in a 2004 rout, both records for a USF opponent. Last year, he tossed three more touchdowns in another Pitt win.

On Saturday, USF's defense put those performances in the past and came up with one of its own. The Bulls came up with three second-half interceptions, as many as Palko had thrown all season. Before his only touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, Palko had passed for all of 75 yards.

"The defensive line played great, got after it and allowed things to happen," Bulls linebacker Ben Moffitt said. "But we played a decent game on both sides of the ball, and even on special teams."

Pittsburgh (6-3, 2-2) hadn't given up a first-quarter touchdown all season, but USF set the tone by getting one on its opening drive. Facing third and 6 from the USF 38, punter Justin Teachey - who had been stopped short on a fake punt in the fourth quarter of the Cincinnati loss - took off on another fake, gaining 11 yards and a first down. Grothe converted a third-and-14 play with a pass to receiver Taurus Johnson, who capped the drive by going 22 yards on a reverse for his third rushing touchdown this season.

Grothe, who hit nine of his first 10 passes, made two highlight-film plays with his feet in the second quarter, scrambling out of two surefire sacks, first for a 24-yard run then for a 22-yard pass play. After a Pittsburgh field goal cut USF's lead to 14-6 in the third quarter, Grothe had his biggest play, hitting receiver Amarri Jackson in stride for a 46-yard touchdown.

The Bulls committed four turnovers, but most were harmless, as Pittsburgh was able to convert them into only three points. The Panthers were penalized 11 times, took a safety for intentional grounding in the end zone and left second-year coach Dave Wannstedt frustrated.

"Just when you thought you pretty much saw every way not to win a football game, something else shows up," Wann-stedt said. "Disappointing would be the word."

Greg Auman can be reached at (813) 226-3346 or auman@sptimes.com.