TAMPA, Fla. — The early start failed to slow down Matt Grothe.
The junior quarterback threw three touchdown passes and ran for another and No. 19 South Florida topped Syracuse 45-13 on Saturday afternoon, but it wasn’t his performance that had him drained.
“It’s getting up at seven in the morning,” Grothe said of the Bulls’ noon kickoff. “I’m still tired from that. When I’m not so worried about football, I play better. I was more worried about getting up early.”
Grothe, who was also the team’s leading rusher with 72 yards, finished 19-for-26 for 248 yards. His second touchdown pass in the third quarter was the 40th of his career, good for second in the history of South Florida. He is 17 shy of the program record set by Marquel Blackwell from 1999-2002.
“Matt played extremely well,” South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said. “He did a real good job and there were even some passes that could’ve been caught.”
The Bulls (6-1, 1-1 Big East) seemed to be back on track after a disappointing loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 2, which knocked them out of the top 10 in the polls. However, South Florida is still in the hunt for its first Big East title.
“We played well today,” Grothe said. “We didn’t play as bad as (against Pittsburgh) everyone made it out to seem — we just didn’t finish. Today was different, and we’re wanting to win the Big East. We want to be BCS eligible.”
Running back Ben Williams also had a 1-yard rushing touchdown, finishing with 25 yards. South Florida pulled away in the third following a sack and a forced fumble by defensive tackle Aaron Harris and a recovered fumble by Craig Marshall. That set up a 2-yard touchdown pass from Grothe to A.J. Love.
After forcing a punt, the Bulls went up 34-13 after a 9-yard pass from Grothe to receiver Taurus Johnson.
Johnson, who had two touchdown receptions, had three catches for 29 yards.
“We didn’t do a very good job in the first half, especially on defense,” Leavitt said. “But we spent more time on South Florida than on Syracuse this week, which we thought would be really important to be successful.”
The Bulls have outscored their opponents 59-7 in the third quarter this season.
South Florida improved defensively, allowing Syracuse just 9 yards of offense in the second half and keeping it from picking up a first down.
“We made just a slight adjustment that allowed them to do what we know they can do,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said.
Running back Curtis Brinkley was the Orange’s lone bright spot, rushing for a team-high 112 yards on 20 attempts and a touchdown. It was his fifth 100-yard plus game of the season.
“I honestly think we can play with them guys, but the score shows what the game was,” Brinkley said.
Quarterback Cameron Dantley struggled to get drives going in the second half, going 11-of-27 for 129 yards in the game.
“We went dormant on offense,” Syracuse coach Greg Robinson said. “I’m disappointed, I really am. I thought that it’d be a better football game than it turned out to be.”
The Bulls opened the scoring early in the first quarter. A 20-yard Grothe screen pass to Williams set up a 1-yard score by Williams on the next play.
Syracuse (1-6, 0-3) had a 43-yard field goal by Patrick Shadle on the next drive.
South Florida scored on its next drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Grothe to Johnson.
The Orange answered on the first play of the second with a 24-yard touchdown run by Brinkley, but Grothe added an 11-yard touchdown run.
The Bulls led 21-13 at the half following a 24-yard field goal by Shadle.
Bulls kicker Maikon Bonani added a 31-yard field goal in the fourth, and Richard Kelly had a 2-yard score late in the fourth.
All-American defensive end George Selvie, who has been nursing an ankle injury, made his first start since Sept. 27 at N.C. State. He finished with two tackles and a sack.
Linebacker Brouce Mompremier also started his first game since suffering a serious neck injury in the Sept. 20 win at Florida International, in which he had to be airlifted off the field. Mompremier finished with two tackles.
South Florida is 4-0 against Syracuse since it joined the Big East in 2005. It is the only team the Bulls are undefeated against in the conference.