2006 PapaJohns.com Bowl - ECU vs. USF

Posted Dec 13, 2006

2006 PapaJohns.com Bowl - East Carolina vs. South Florida

South Florida (8-4) vs. East Carolina (7-5)

Dec. 23rd  1 p.m.  ESPN2

Get Tickets for the PapaJohns.com Bowl | Get more picks for this game

PapaJohns.com Bowl Player Profile: South Florida QB Matt Grothe, history & more

Both programs are looking at this game as a chance to move forward. In the second year under head coach Skip Holtz, ECU wants to be back at the level it was at a few years ago when it was one of the Conference USA big boys and bowl games were a given. South Florida wants to show that it truly is a player in a BCS conference and is at the level to slap away a non-BCS conference team with ease.

Fine, so the PapaJohns.com Bowl isn't exactly the Granddaddy of them all, but for East Carolina and USF, this might as well be the Rose Bowl. Each are emerging as bigger stars and each appears to be on the verge of bigger and better things. As much as any other bowl game, this is a minor one that the teams will use as a springboard.

The last time East Carolina made a post-season appearance was a memorable one with Marshall's Byron Leftwich beating future Jacksonville Jaguar teammate David Garrard in a 64-61 classic GMAC Bowl to send the Pirate program into a downward spiral it's just now pulling up from. That loss was part of a three-game losing streak to end the 2001 season as part of an ugly 12-37 run until this season.

National Rankings
South Florida East Carolina
Total Offense
41st  367.92 ypg 53rd  350.75 ypg
Total Defense
24th  296.92 ypg 60th  332.92 ypg
Scoring Offense
67th  22.92 ppg 69th  22.75 ppg
Scoring Defense
24th  17.75 ppg 47th  20.50 ppg
Run Offense
50th  143.17 ypg 81st  120.67 ypg
Run Defense
41st  120.33 ypg 72nd  144.25 ypg
Pass Offense
39th 224.75 ypg 32nd  230.08 ypg
Pass Defense
26th  176.58 ypg  43rd  188.67 ypg
Turnover Margin
85th  -0.42  32nd  0.42
South Florida
McNeese St W 41-10
FIU W 21-20
at UCF W 24-17
at Kansas L 13-7
L 22-20
Connecticut W 38-16
at N Car W 37-20
at Cincinnati L 23-6
Pitt W 22-12
Syracuse W 27-10
at Louisville L 31-8
at West Va W 24-19
East Carolina
at Navy L 28-23
at UAB L 17-12
Memphis W 35-20
W Virginia L 27-10
Virginia W 31-21
Tulsa L 31-10
SMU W 38-21
at S Miss W 20-17 OT
at UCF W 23-10
Marshall W 33-20
at Rice L 18-17
at NC State W 21-16
Position Ratings
relative to each other
USF 5 highest
1 lowest
4 Quarterbacks 4
2.5 RBs 3.5
3 Receivers 3.5
3 O Line 3.5
4 D Line 3
4.5 Linebackers 3
4 Secondary 4
3.5 Spec Teams 4
4 Coaching 3.5

South Florida went to its first bowl ever last year losing to NC State 14-0 in the Meineke Car Car Bowl, but under head coach Jim Leavitt, appears ready to make regular appearances in the post-season. While Leavitt has led the program to better records, this might be his best team going 8-4 highlighted by wins over West Virginia and Pitt proving that this is a growing Big East power.

The Bulls like to rely on its tough defense, experienced secondary, and the good decision-making ability of QB Matt Grothe, and while the Pirates don't have the same run defense as USF and tend to use the running backs a bit more, they also have a tough group of defensive backs and live and die offensively with their quarterback.

ECU started off the season appearing to be one of Conference USA's bigger disappointments with a 1-4 start including a loss to UAB which all but ended any title hopes before they could even begin. A stunning 31-21 win over Virginia appeared to turn the season around, but things came quickly crashing back to earth with a blowout home loss to Tulsa.

At 2-5 and the season going nowhere, the Pirates went on a run winning five of their last six games with the only loss coming in a 18-17 thriller to Rice. Along the way, they beat eventual Conference USA champion Southern Miss in overtime and ended the Chuck Amato era at NC State with a 21-16 win. Most impressively, they pulled off the drive to the PapaJohns.com Bowl mostly on the road.

South Florida struggled a bit with its consistency as the offense looked to find its identity, and Grothe had to go through the peaks and valleys of his inexperience. The offense clicked against UConn and North Carolina, but couldn't get anything going in losses to Cincinnati and Louisville. But just when it seemed like the season would be nothing special, the Bulls pulled off a 24-19 win over West Virginia to provide a signature moment. Now they're looking to close out with a first ever bowl win to try get the program more and more on the national radar.

Players to watch: While the Pirates need a big game out of QB James Pinkney to win, they also like to mix it up a bit and get a little balance with senior Brandon Fractious and the running game. While not an elite runner by any stretch, Fractious is tough and has a nice burst turning into a productive playmaker over the second half of the season. When he's running well, ECU usually wins since it takes the pressure off Pinkney, who's not exactly stingy when it comes to ball security.

Looking to keep Fractious in check, and keep Pinkney from running out of the pocket, will be a strong USF defensive front led by linebackers Stephen Nicholas and Ben Moffitt, who are undersized, but quick, experienced, and rock-solid sure tacklers. While he hasn't been used as a pass rusher as much as he has in the past, Nicholas can get into the backfield and is a consistent playmaker behind the line of scrimmage. He has first day draft pick potential and can boost his stock up big-time with a splashy final performance.

In the end, it'll come down to the two quarterbacks. The one who plays better will get the win; it's that simple. Pinkney has a live arm and can move, but he tends to force plays that aren't there and got on a bad run of interceptions over the second half of the season throwing two in three of the final five games. The offense relied on him a bit too much over the first half of the season and didn't start to roll, and the team didn't start to win, until there was more balance, but with the USF run defense almost certain to keep Fractious, Chris Johnson, and the Bull ground game under wraps, Pinkney will have to come up with one of his better games.

Matt Grothe is more of a runner than Pinkney with 607 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, but that doesn't mean he can't throw. The redshirt freshman completed 64% of his passes with 14 touchdowns along with 14 interceptions including six in the final four games, but he's at his best when he's running effectively. Grothe only went three games this year without throwing a pick, and the Bulls won those with ease.

East Carolina will win if... it forces the Bulls to go on long drives. Helped by WR Ean Randolph, this can be an explosive South Florida offense, but it's not the type that's great at going on long, sustained drives on a consistent basis. It's fantastic at capitalizing on momentum and feeding off the energy from the defense, so if ECU can win the turnover battle and be ahead in the field position game, it should be in good shape. It would also help if there's a chill in the air. USF is a warm weather team that tends to fold up when the thermometer dips below 40, so the Birmingham, Alabama weather might play a big role.

South Florida will win if... it makes East Carolina one-dimensional. Over the first half of the season, ECU was 0-3 when it ran for fewer than 100 yards and lost to Rice in late November when it ran for 218 but threw for 83. While there are exceptions, like wins over Marshall and SMU when all they did was throw, the Pirates need to be balanced to be fully effective. The passing game is good, but it's not so good that it'll light up the solid South Florida secondary when under the pressure of George Selvie and the effective USF pass rush.

What will happen: South Florida's defense will win the game. The Bulls will force three key turnovers that'll turn the momentum, and the offense will get just enough early to get up and stay there. ECU won't be able to get its ground attack going meaning Pinkney will have to force things over the second half and will press too much. That'll be exactly what Trae Williams and the Bull secondary will be looking for.

Line: South Florida -3.5 ... CFN Prediction:
South Florida 23 ... East Carolina 13