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Sentinel: After tasting big time, USF out to stay a little longer


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From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel

After tasting big time, USF out to stay a little longer

After tasting big time last season, team out to stay a little longer

By Chris Harry | ORLANDO SENTINEL

    August 23, 2008

TAMPA - The South Florida Bulls were several hours removed from embarrassing UCF in a 64-12 pummeling.

From unranked and virtually unheard of when the season started, USF had ascended to the top 10 and by virtue of the blowout was headed toward the top of the polls and smack in the middle of Bowl Championship Series conversations.

"It was crazy," quarterback Matt Grothe said. "Everything just happened so fast."

Just as insane: Grothe was seeing his name on midseason Heisman Trophy watch lists.

Seriously, what team — what player — could have dealt with so much so soon?

What occurred from there was almost predictable.

Loss. Loss. Loss.

"I don't really think people can understand what we went through," Grothe said. "And I don't think we handled it any differently than anybody else would have."

From fairy tale to fantasy, USF's 2007 season ended with a 9-4 record that proved to be a far more accurate assessment than the No. 2 ranking that followed the overtime road upset of Auburn and victory over fifth-ranked West Virginia.

Had USF prevailed in any of those three midseason defeats — at Rutgers, at Connecticut or home against Cincinnati — the Bulls would have won the Big East Conference and played in their first BCS bowl. They settled for the Sun Bowl, where the Bulls were thrashed 56-21 by Oregon.

Grothe and his teammates got a taste of the big time last fall — the good and the bad. The 2008 season will be about applying all the lessons they learned.

It starts with Grothe, a junior and All-Big East candidate.

"He's a playmaker. He gets out of jams," said USF coach Jim Leavitt, whose team will debut ranked 21st in The Associated Press poll. "But he's also got to understand about protecting the football. You hope that he'll do a good job of making those kinds of decisions."

USF is a combined 18-8 the past two seasons. In victories, Grothe threw 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In losses, he threw four touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

The Bulls went 9-0 when he didn't throw an interception.

"Taking care of the ball will be our No. 1 priority," passing game coordinator Greg Gregory said.

The Bulls, however, want to get there without clamping down on the creativity of their quarterback. In addition to passing for 2,670 yards last season, Grothe also led the Bulls in rushing with 872 yards and 10 touchdowns. Only two other QBs in the nation had 2,500 yards and 800 rushing yards; one plays in Gainesville and won the Heisman.

The rushing numbers are a testament to his agility, which Grothe used on countless occasions to escape trouble. Unfortunately, in doing so he sometimes tossed ill-advised passes (like a school-record 382 passing yards, but also four interceptions against Cincinnati); other times he held the ball too long (seven sacks when the team was 6-0 and ranked No. 2 at Rutgers).

USF's passing game puts a lot of responsibility on the quarterback. Too much, sometimes. Against Rutgers, a couple of routine screen passes would have helped against a wicked pass rush, but instead the offense turned to Grothe to make plays, good and bad.

Grothe reported for two-a-days about 20 pounds lighter than where he finished the season. At 6 feet and a leaner 200 pounds, he'll be even faster.

He also vows to be smarter with the football.

"We went through everything — ups and downs, highs and lows — so there's nothing we're not prepared for," Grothe said.

"I'm going to expect everything this year, but at the same time I'm not going to worry about what everybody says. If they say, 'Hey, they're No. 2,' we have to stay there this time."

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