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December 22, 2006

PapaJohns.com Bowl: USF vs. East Carolina

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Too often bowl matchups feature teams that struggled to make the postseason, teams that limp in with not much going for them.

Saturday's inaugural PapaJohns.com Bowl (1 p.m., ESPN2) has a pair of teams that are hotter than a large pepperoni pizza straight out of the oven.

South Florida - making its second consecutive bowl trip - won its final regular-season game at then-No. 7 West Virginia, 24-19. The Bulls won three of their last four to get to 8-4. They have an underrated defense (24th in the nation in total defense), and they take their cues on offense from redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Grothe (their leading passer and leading rusher).

South Florida's opponent, East Carolina, also enters the postseason sizzling.

The Pirates have won five of six, with their only loss during that stretch a heartbreaking 18-17 decision at Rice. They're well-balanced offensively, and their defense relies on a secondary that was 15th in the nation in interceptions with 16.

PapaJohns.com Bowl: South Florida vs. East Carolina
Time: 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 23
Location: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
TV: ESPN2 (Gary Thorne, Andre Ware and sideline reporter Todd Harris)
South Florida Bulls
Conference: Big East
Record: 8-4, 4-3
Coach: Jim Leavitt (69-43, 10th season)
Passing leader: Matt Grothe (196 of 307, 2,495 yards, 14 touchdowns, 14 interceptions)
Rushing leader: Matt Grothe (171 carries, 607 yards, nine TDs)
Receiving leader: Ean Randolph (47 receptions, 479 yards, four TDs)
Defensive leader: LB Stephen Nicholas (96 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions)
East Carolina Pirates
Conference: Conference USA
Record: 7-5, 5-3
Coach: Skip Holtz (12-11, second season)
Passing leader: James Pinkney (224 of 372, 2,658 yards, 11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions)
Rushing leader: Brandon Fractious (149 carries, 674 yards, four TDs)
Receiving leader: Aundrae Allison (59 receptions, 684 yards, four TDs)
Defensive leaders: LB Quentin Cotton (68 tackles, eight tackles for loss)
South Florida running game vs. East Carolina run defense: The Bulls will keep the ball in the hands of Matt Grothe quite a bit. The redshirt freshman quarterback led the team in rushing (607 yards, 3.5 yards per carry). Sophomore Benjamin Williams is the starter at running back (369 yards, 3.5 yards per carry). Grothe's per-carry average is misleading because sacks count against his rushing total. The Pirates weren't particularly strong this season against the run, finishing 72nd in the nation. Edge: South Florida.
South Florida passing game vs. East Carolina pass defense: Grothe was 35th in the nation in passing efficiency, completing nearly 64 percent of his attempts for 14 touchdowns. On the flip side, he threw 14 interceptions. A closer look at the numbers reveals he had seven TDs to nine interceptions in Big East play. Meanwhile, the Pirates have 16 interceptions this season, including four each by senior cornerback Kasey Ross and senior safety Pierre Parker. Edge: East Carolina.
East Carolina running game vs. South Florida run defense: The Pirates haven't had much success on the ground this season, ranking 81st nationally (120.7 yards per game). They don't figure to have much success against the Bulls, who limited the powerful West Virginia run game to a season-low 132 yards in their upset of the Mountaineers on Nov. 25. Edge: South Florida.
East Carolina passing game vs. South Florida pass defense:Senior quarterback James Pinkney, a South Florida native, is the engine of the Pirates offense. He's a three-year starter who has passed for more than 8,000 yards in his career. The Bulls will have their hands full with Pinkney and leading receiver Aundrae Ellison. USF has been stout against the pass all season, ranking 14th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Junior cornerback Trae Williams, a first-team all-conference selection, led the Big East with seven interceptions. The Bulls also get after the pass well (23rd nationally in sacks). Edge: South Florida.
South Florida coach Jim Leavitt vs. East Carolina coach Skip Holtz:: Leavitt could get it going in Tampa for the long haul. The state is loaded with prep talent, and he now has taken the Bulls to consecutive bowl games. Holtz is on the way up, too. The Pirates lost five games, but only one of those came to a team that isn't playing in a bowl. Edge: Even.
South Florida will win if: Grothe is on his passing game, meaning he's accurate and doesn't turn it over against the Pirates.
East Carolina will win if: It can win the turnover battle and protect Pinkney long enough to get its passing game rolling.
Injury situation: USF – None. ECU – None.
Worth noting: USF is 0-1 all time in bowl games, losing 14-0 last year to N.C. State in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. … East Carolina is 7-5 all time in bowl games. Its last appearance came in 2001, when it lost a memorable thriller to Marshall in the GMAC Bowl, 64-61 in double overtime… South Florida played in Conference USA with East Carolina in 2003 and 2004 before moving to the Big East. The Bulls won both of those games and their only other meeting with ECU, in 2002. … South Florida is 1-1 at Legion Field, with a victory over UAB and a loss to Alabama. … ECU is 0-3 all time at Legion Field. … USF is 0-3 all time in December. … USF quarterback Matt Grothe and Illinois receiver DaJuan Warren are the only players in the country to have stats in passing, rushing, receiving and punting. … Bulls senior receiver Ean Randolph could be a major factor on special teams against the Pirates. He's sixth in the nation in punt-return average (14.7 yards), and he would have ranked higher had he not had three touchdown returns called back because of penalties in USF's first two games. … The PapaJohns.com Bowl will mark the 38th consecutive start for Pirates quarterback James Pinkney. He's fifth among active Division I-A quarterbacks. …
Line as of 12/21: South Florida by 4½
Prediction: South Florida 27, East Carolina 19
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Bobby Burton, Editor-in-chief: South Florida, 24-10.
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: South Florida, 24-17.
Olin Buchanan, National college football writer: South Florida, 24-20.
Steve Megargee, National college football writer: South Florida, 24-16.
Make your picks on Rivals.com Bowl Pick 'Em.

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