Matt Grothe threw for 208 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the Big East’s all-time leader in total offense to help South Florida pull away from Western Kentucky 35-13 on Saturday night.
The senior quarterback added 53 yards rushing to boost his career total yardage to 10,702, breaking the record of 10,529 held by former West Virginia star Pat White as the Bulls (2-0) took control in the second half to pull away from the Hilltoppers.
Grothe threw touchdown passes of 14 yards to Theo Wilson and 17 yards to Ben Busbee, helping the Bulls overcome a sluggish start and post their 13th straight regular season nonconference win. Moise Plancher added 115 yards rushing and two touchdowns for South Florida.
WKU (0-2) saw its bid for an attention-grabbing upset fall short behind a slew of penalties (13) and an almost nonexistent passing game.
Quarterback Brandon Smith ran for 105 yards but had little time in the pocket when dropping back to pass. He completed 13 of 26 passes for just 84 yards and was sacked three times.
The Hilltoppers had hoped to turn the first-ever visit to LT Smith Stadium by a member of a Bowl Championship Series conference into a coming out party.
While WKU certainly fared better than it did in a season-opening 63-7 mauling at Tennessee – a game in which the Hilltoppers amassed 83 yards of total offense – the Bulls made sure the second-largest crowd in WKU history went home early.
The Hilltoppers have pointed to the Bulls as an example of how to make the jump from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision the right way.
The Bulls made the step up 11 years ago and have become a perennial contender in the Big East. WKU’s goals aren’t quite so ambitious – at least, not yet – but South Florida showed the Hilltoppers there’s still plenty of work to do.
WKU trailed just 14-6 at the half, but South Florida snapped out of its doldrums when Grothe hit Carlton Mitchell for a 65-yard pass that set up a touchdown run by BJ Daniels.
WKU responded with a 15-yard score by Marell Booker – thanks in part of a personal foul penalty by the Bulls on an incomplete third-down pass – to get within 21-13 with 27 seconds left in the third.
Undaunted, Grothe took over. He led South Florida right back down the field and put the game away on a play that perfectly summarized his career. He dropped back to pass, ducked away from pressure then scrambled to buy enough time to find Busbee in the back of the endzone to put the Bulls up 28-13. WKU was stopped on fourth down on its next possession, and Plancher busted loose for a 20-yard score with 6:03 to play to finish it off.
The easy victory hardly seemed possible during an ugly first half, when at times it was hard to tell which team was the FBS newcomer.
During one sequence in the first quarter South Florida muffed a WKU punt, which the Hilltoppers recovered. The play was nullified by a penalty. On the rekick, the ball bounced off a South Florida player and the Hilltoppers recovered again.
The rest of the half followed a similar pattern: the Bulls would make a mistake and the Hilltoppers would make a bigger one. Grothe threw a pick and WKU appeared to pull within four on a 14-yard touchdown run by Smith. It was called back by a penalty and the Hilltoppers had to settle for a field goal.