Defense does the trick for Bulls

A couple of interceptions returned for TDs help USF put away Pittsburgh on a chilly day.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 25, 2007

PITTSBURGH - Saturday brought the second-coldest temperature for a USF game, but with each big play in a 48-37 win at Pittsburgh, the Bulls brought the potential warmth of the Sun Bowl a little closer.

An 80-yard touchdown run by quarterback Matt Grothe? Getting warmer.

Interceptions returned for touchdowns by safety Nate Allen and cornerback Trae Williams? Even warmer.

With three straight dominating wins with at least 41 points in each, the Bulls (9-3, 4-3) have finished the regular season on fire. When the BCS standings come out today, USF will likely find itself as the Big East's No. 2 team, which should lock up a trip to the Sun Bowl on New Year's Eve in El Paso, Texas.

"Definitely. I don't see why we shouldn't be," Grothe said. "We can compete with anybody they put us against."

West Virginia's 66-21 win against Connecticut gives the Mountaineers the Big East's BCS berth, and USF's ranking may give the Bulls the nod over Cincinnati for the league's spot in El Paso. That's a major turnaround from three weeks ago, when the Bulls had lost three straight to go from a No. 2 national ranking to falling out of the Top 25.

"I'm really proud of our football team. They're so resilient," coach Jim Leavitt said. "This team very well could be a 12-0 team. I think we all know that. There are some things we did wrong, some calls that were very controversial, kicking things, turnovers. ... It was pretty frustrating during that stretch."

It wasn't all easy Saturday before a half-full Heinz Field crowd of 31,123, as the Bulls trailed much of the first half. Down 7-0 and struggling, USF executed a fake punt, getting a 29-yard run from linebacker Sam Miller, setting up the first of two Mike Ford touchdown runs.

Down 14-10 at halftime, Grothe broke loose on an 80-yard touchdown run to start the third quarter and from there, Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said his team "just came totally unglued."

The defense put the game away, all but scoring 21 points by itself. Allen returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown, linebacker Ben Moffitt took one 60 yards to the 1, setting up a Ford score, and Williams returned a pick 21 yards for his third touchdown this season.

"It's a great momentum shift. It changes the whole game anytime the defense can score," Moffitt said.

USF led 34-14 with eight minutes to play but allowed Pittsburgh (4-7, 2-4) to score 23 points in the final 7:10 to make the score appear closer than it was.

"We can't have that," said defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, whose defense held Pitt freshman phenom LeSean McCoy to a season-low 55 rushing yards. "We played real solid football for three quarters, then they lost their focus and concentration."

USF's defense didn't force a turnover until late in the third quarter, and that was the difference in the second half. The Bulls entered the game tied for the national lead in takeaways and have a school-record 41 this season.

"Wally told the defense at halftime we really needed to try to get some turnovers, and they did," Leavitt said.

USF had never won a game in temperatures lower than 40 degrees, but the 35-degree weather didn't slow the Bulls. The nine wins match the most in USF history, tying the 2002 and 2006 seasons, so the only question is where the Bulls will have a chance to get their 10th victory.

The BCS standings come out today, and if USF remains ahead of Cincinnati, Sun Bowl officials said they'll likely take the highest-ranked team available.

"I can't say where we deserve to be, but I think that'd be a nice bowl to go to," said Williams, who has returned three interceptions for touchdowns in the last four games. "We'll just see how it plays out this week."

By the numbers

9 Victories this season, matching 2002 and 2006 for the most in USF's 11-year history; a bowl win would give the Bulls their first 10-win season.

55 Rushing yards for Pitt freshman LeSean McCoy, his lowest total in 11 games this season; he did rush for three touchdowns.