They wore white helmets for the first time ever. Hey, when you play in the St. Petersburg Bowl, you pull out all the stops.
So the South Florida Bulls left the gold helmets behind, tugged on white ones and took to the FieldTurf at Tropicana Field, which was last seen as the site of Game 2 of the World Series, but was used Saturday as the venue for the first bowl game played in St. Pete.
Bulls coach Jim Leavitt toyed with the idea of wearing the white caps during the regular season finale at West Virginia, but that was the final home game for West Virginia quarterback Pat White and the Mountaineers held a white-out of their own.
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“Probably wasn’t the right thing to do,” Leavitt said.
Ah, but Saturday called from something special. It was the first-ever St. Petersburg Bowl, and Leavitt, a St.Pete native, was coaching for the first time in his home town. So, what the heck.
“I thought if we played bad I’ll put them away and we’ll never use them again,” Leavitt said.
Expect to see more of the white helmets.
It was USF 41, Memphis 14.
“We looked like the old-school New York Jets,” Bulls quarterback Matt Grothe said.
Grothe was the game’s leading passer (236 yards and three touchdowns) and rusher (83 yards) and walked out of the Trop carrying the MVP trophy.
“Matt is a great quarterback,” Bulls receiver Dontavia Bogan said. “People saw what he can do.”
Grothe became the Big East Conference’s leader in total offense, passing White with his 13-yard touchdown pass to Ben Busbee in the second quarter. Grothe has 10,242 yards of total offense through his first three years. White, who now trails Grothe by 100 yards, should retake the lead when he plays his final college game at the Meineke Car Care Bowl later this month.
But White won’t hold it for long. Grothe has another year left.
And Grothe said he’s looking forward to next season.
As far as this season, it ended about as well as it could for a team that was 2-5 in conference play and lost four of its last five games. Whatever the Bulls expected of themselves back in September, it sure didn’t include a trip across Tampa Bay for a bowl game.
The Trop is a strange place for a football game. Fans formed a horseshoe around three sides of the field with the left field seats empty. A crowd of 25,205 showed up, which is encouraging. But you wonder how many would have made the trip to St. Pete if USF wasn’t playing.
The game did attract a few celebrities. Scott Kazmir, B.J. Upton and Andy Sonnanstine of the AL champion Rays were in the house.
More importantly for fans of the home team, the Bulls also showed up, playing their best game since drubbing Syracuse in mid-October and erased the memory of last year’s 56-21 pounding by Oregon in the Sun Bowl.
“A little bit,” Grothe said, meaning a lot.
“I think the biggest thing that motivated me was just to go out and play football,” Grothe said. “The last few games of the season we were trying so hard to win a game that we forgot to play.”
They remembered Saturday.
Maybe it was the helmets.
“I liked them a lot,” Grothe said. “I hope we wear them again.”