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
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
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
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
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
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 PapaJohns.com 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."