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Bulls throw off Elon's opening threat

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It might have been closer than expected, but USF passes (and defends) well enough.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer

Published September 2, 2007


TAMPA - It wasn't pretty, wasn't nearly as dominant as it could have been, but Saturday's USF opener was a teaser for all the things Bulls fans have been 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 four sacks from George Selvie and keeping lowly 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 in his Bulls debut, providing all the highlights in a 28-13 victory at Raymond James Stadium.

"I want to thank God for letting me see this day and be here," said Ford, who had only seven touches but managed to score three times. "I thank my offensive line - I mean our offensive line, and our receivers, everything for making this possible, fans and all."

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

"We had so many chances to completely blow this thing out," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "It wasn't very pretty. If we play this way, you know what would happen next week. We won't."

Both teams struggled through a scoreless first quarter, with USF's defense bailing out a special-teams gaffe. Punter Justin Teachey dropped a snap and was tackled on USF's 16-yard line, but three plays later, defensive end George Selvie got the first of three sacks, forcing a Scott Riddle fumble that was recovered by Jarriett Buie.

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, who finished 23-of-39 for 238 yards. 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, who got only seven touches, sprinted around the right side and dived for the pylon and a 21-yard touchdown.

After a Nate Allen interception spoiled an Elon drive inside the USF 20, the Bulls got another score as Grothe found Amarri Jackson for a 24-yard touchdown.

Elon had 19 first downs, as many as USF, and held the ball for almost 10 minutes more. But the Bulls escaped, which was more than No.5 Michigan did against another Division I-AA team from North Carolina, losing at home to Appalachian State.

"At least we won. We didn't do anything beautifully," Leavitt said. "At least we're not like another team in another conference, up in Ann Arbor. But we probably could have been. We have work to do."

And just when it looked like Leavitt was keeping Ford under wraps for the rest of the night, he returned with a signature play, bouncing off three Elon defenders and breaking free for a 48-yard run. He was marked out of bounds at the 2-yard line as he bowled through another Elon player at the goal line. Two plays later, he had his third score.

Much of the excitement will build around Ford, who rushed for a game-high 83 yards, averaging 13.8 yards a carry.

"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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