BIRMINGHAM, ALA. - South Florida started fast, made clutch defensive stops and cashed in on a series of fourth-down gambles.
Bowl neophytes? The Bulls hardly looked the part Saturday in a 24-7 victory over East Carolina in the inaugural PapaJohns.com Bowl, the first bowl win for the decade-old program.
South Florida's only previous bowl appearance was a shutout loss last year in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. But a team that had ended the regular season with an upset win over West Virginia might have topped that one for the Bulls' biggest victory.
"We talked about how important it was to win this game," said South Florida coach Jim Leavitt, whose team finished 9-4 to tie its season-high for wins set in 2002. "We felt like if we'd win today, this would be the best team in the history of the University of South Florida - which is a short history.
"Even so, that was a big thing."
The Bulls played the scoreless second half without quarterback Matt Grothe. The Big East freshman of the year was kicked in the right shin in the second quarter and returned only for the next and final series of the half, but the defense kept turning back East Carolina (7-6).
Plus, the Bulls went 5-for-5 on fourth-down conversions on drives that resulted in 17 points.
Struggling to make a comeback, the Pirates drove inside the South Florida 30 five times in the second half only to fall short. Sacks, a missed field goal, a fumble and a failed fourth-and-goal pass doomed the threats on trips deep into South Florida territory.