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Bulls pay attention to upset lesson

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USF defends and passes well enough to avoid the fate that befell Michigan.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer

Published September 2, 2007


TAMPA - No.5 Michigan set the bar for disappointment pretty high Saturday in losing at home to a Division I-AA team from North Carolina, so USF coach Jim Leavitt can thank the Wolverines for a little perspective.

"At least we won the game," Leavitt said after his team's lackluster 28-13 win against lowly Elon. "We didn't do anything beautifully. It ended up being something that was kind of ugly.

"At least we're not like what happened to that other team out of their conference, going up to Ann Arbor and winning. But probably could have been. We have work to do."

Ugly as it was, Saturday's opener was a teaser for all the things Bulls fans have been eagerly waiting for all summer.

Quarterback Matt Grothe was back, setting a career high for attempts and passing for two touchdowns. The defense showed promise, getting six sacks - four from George Selvie - and keeping Elon out of the end zone until the final four minutes.

And - psst, don't tell next week's opponent, Auburn - freshman running back Mike Ford scored three touchdowns and provided all the big highlights in a wild debut.

"I want to thank God for letting me see this day and be here," said a humble Ford, who had only seven touches but totaled a team-high 84 yards.

Pulling away to a semi-comfortable second-half lead, the Bulls 1-0 didn't do what most teams do, which is politely running the ball. Rather than show Auburn too much of their talented freshman running backs, they let Grothe throw the ball around - 39 times in all, four more than in any game he played last season.

"I don't think we threw a lot at them," said Grothe, who went 23-for-39 for 238 yards, connecting with 10 targets. "We didn't play well enough and that's the main reason why I threw so many times. ... A win is a win, whether it's by one point or 100."

The outcome ended up much like last year's opener against McNeese State, when the Bulls trailed 10-7 late in the third quarter before pulling away to a 41-10 win.

This year's game drew a crowd of 33,639, more than 7,000 more than for last year's opener.

"We had so many chances to completely blow this thing out, and we kept not doing it," Leavitt said.

The Bulls didn't score until the second quarter, when USF, lining up in a rare three-back alignment, got a 12-yard run from Ford. On third and goal from the 1, the Bulls lined up in the same three-back set, with Ford springing free to catch a 1-yard touchdown from Grothe. The Bulls went into halftime clinging to a 7-3 lead.

USF controlled the third quarter, scoring on touchdown drives of 68 and 64 yards. Ford sprinted around the right side and dived for the pylon and a 21-yard touchdown.

Just when it looked like Leavitt had put Ford under wraps for the night, he returned in the fourth quarter with a signature play, bouncing off three Elon defenders and breaking free for a 48-yard run, ruled out at the 2-yard line as he bowled through another Elon player at the goal line. Two plays later, he had his third score.

As the Bulls prepare for 87,000 fans at Auburn next week, much of the excitement will build around Ford, hoping that the rest of the team can play a different game than they did Saturday.

"Mike Ford did a nice job. Obviously we've got to look at him," Leavitt said. "He's a big, strong guy, ran hard. I thought our defense did some really great things. They had their backs against the wall over and over again tonight because of some really foolish things."

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

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