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View from the 'ville
Thursday, December 7, 2006

By Al Myatt

ECU, USF traveled opposing paths to reunion

While Bulls were continuing their ascent up I-A ladder, Pirates were recovering from strategic blunder

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There have been major changes for both programs since East Carolina last played South Florida on November 13, 2004, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

The biggest Pirate presence on the Gulf Coast that night was the ship that is part of the decor of the stadium that also is home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL.

That matchup was one of too many low points for ECU as it stumbled around blindly in the football wilderness searching for some semblance of the competitiveness it lost following the deposal of Steve Logan as coach by former athletic director Mike Hamrick.

ECU managed to make South Florida look like the Tampa Bay Bucs in that Conference USA contest two years ago. It was 78 degrees that night and the Bulls offense was hot, too, rolling up 509 total yards in a 41-17 win.

Things were just awful for the Pirates, including their luck. Art Brown was supposed to be the starter at running back that night against South Florida but was injured in pregame warm-ups and didn't play.

The plot began to change for the better for the Pirates in the hours following that resounding defeat.

ECU AD Terry Holland decided he had seen enough of John Thompson as coach of the Pirates after nine games to make a definitive evaluation and informed him the following week that he would not be coaching at ECU beyond the final game of the 2004 season.

Holland's course of action generated the Skip Holtz era for the Pirates, which has been responsible for a tremendous reversal in football fortunes. ECU has gone from 3-20 in its two years under Thompson's command to 12-11 in two years under its new leadership.

The last game in the Thompson era was a 52-14 loss to N.C. State in Charlotte. The last game for Holtz was a 21-16 win over the Wolfpack in Raleigh. That's a pretty good measuring stick for the amount of ground the Pirates have covered in two years of working to re-establish themselves.

The ECU program has been rebuilt faster than most people would have believed was possible.

South Florida has made a habit out of doing things quickly in building its football program as well. In just a decade under the leadership of coach Jim Leavitt, the Bulls have gone from starting a program to membership in the Big East Conference.

USF joined the Big East in 2005 and responded to that major step up by going 8-4 overall this season.

The Bulls got a golden opportunity to become part of a Bowl Championship Series conference after the Atlantic Coast Conference lured Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech away from the Big East. USF's location was a key factor. The Big East wanted to continue its presence in Florida and the Bulls were more than happy to oblige.

South Florida looked deserving of its good fortune in conference affiliation this season. The job the Bulls did against West Virginia the last Saturday in November certainly legitimized their credibility in the Big East as USF defeated the Mountaineers, 24-19, in Morgantown no less.

West Virginia came into that game with the No. 2 rushing offense in Division I-A with 330.1 yards per game but was limited to just 132 yards on 47 rushing attempts by the Bulls.

Big East offensive player of the year Patrick White, the West Virginia quarterback, and running back Steve Slaton, both of whom are projected as Heisman Trophy candidates in 2007, were each held under 100 yards rushing for the first time this season by the Bulls.

Defensive end George Selvie was a monstrous force for USF with eight tackles, including seven solo, 3.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. His 9-yard fumble return for a score in the second quarter gave USF a 7-6 lead. The Bulls forced four Mountaineers turnovers.

Freshman quarterback Matt Grothe of the Bulls completed 22 of 30 passes for 279 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also rushed for a team-high 47 yards and one score. For the year, Grothe has 2,495 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. He also has 607 yards rushing and nine touchdowns on the ground. Wideout Ean Randolph caught seven passes for 65 yards and one touchdown at West Virginia.

It was a milestone win, giving the Bulls a 4-3 league record. For sake of comparison, it should be noted that the Pirates are 0-11 in Morgantown's hostile environment with a lot of competitive games but no victories.

The two programs have certainly evolved for the better since that night in Tampa two years ago. USF is poised for its second bowl trip, having fallen to N.C. State 14-0 in Charlotte in its inaugural postseason trip in 2005.

The Pirates are in their first bowl since 2001 as they play the Bulls in the Bowl on Dec. 23 at Legion Field in Birmingham. South Florida leads the series 3-0 with the help of a bounce pass for a score in a 38-37 double overtime win in Greenville in 2003.

Holtz is essentially practicing on the weekends until exams are finished on Dec. 15, then the focus will shift to meeting the challenge that South Florida presents.

"It is huge from a program standpoint," said the Pirates coach. "It shows the growth in the program and how far we've come in two years. We are definitely not where we want to be, but we are moving in the right direction.

"This is a very positive reward for a team that has worked very hard."

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02/23/2007 12:30:58 AM


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