Grothe, defense give No. 23 USF edge over Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- South Florida feels very comfortable when the ball is in the hands of quarterback Matt Grothe, who is as much of a threat to score to run for a touchdown as he is to throw for one.

That versatility is a necessity, Grothe said, on a team where the defense is as apt to score a game-altering touchdown as is the offense.

Grothe ran 80 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second half and No. 23 South Florida shook off a sluggish start, turning three interceptions into touchdowns in a 48-37 victory over Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Nate Allen and Trae Williams scored on interception returns and Ben Moffitt's 60-yard interception return to the Pitt 1 set up Mike Ford's second touchdown run as South Florida (9-3, 4-3 in Big East) rallied from a 14-10 halftime deficit.

The Bulls outscored Pitt (4-7, 2-4) 38-23 in the second half during a school record-tying ninth victory. All of the interceptions came off freshman Pat Bostick, who threw as many scoring passes to the other team as he did his own during Pitt's seventh loss in nine games.

"It's a great momentum shift," Moffitt said, pointing to South Florida's five defensive touchdowns this season. "It just changes the whole game any time the defense can score."

The Bulls may be headed to the Sun Bowl, which is expected to take either them or No. 20 Connecticut, depending on which team is ranked higher in the next BCS rankings. UConn lost to West Virginia (No. 3 BCS, No. 4 AP) 66-21 on Saturday and may fall from the Top 25.

"I don't see why we shouldn't be [the Sun Bowl pick]," Grothe said. "I think we can compete with anybody they put us against. Wherever they think best suits us, we'll have to live with it, but I think we can play with the best of the best."

The Bulls expected to go to a BCS bowl after starting 6-0, but close losses to Rutgers (30-27), UConn (22-15) and Cincinnati (38-33) dropped them out of the Top 25. They have since beaten Syracuse, Louisville and Pitt by an average margin of nearly 27 points, forcing 14 turnovers in the three victories.

"We had a bunch of near-misses in the middle part of our schedule, but we bounced back to play some of our best football of the season," coach Jim Leavitt said.

Pittsburgh, assured of its third losing season in three years under coach Dave Wannstedt, fell apart after leading 7-0 and 14-7 despite freshman LeSean McCoy's three touchdown runs as South Florida scored 24 consecutive points to open a 34-14 lead.

"We became totally unglued," Wannstedt said. "The interceptions -- a lot of them -- were due to inexperience."

The Panthers must upset rival West Virginia on the road next Saturday to avoid their first eight-loss season since they were 2-9 under Walt Harris in 1998.

Grothe got South Florida going with his touchdown run out of a shotgun formation on the first play after halftime. Grothe ran for 67 yards and threw for 159 while going 17-of-23, and has accounted for 23 touchdowns -- 13 on passes and 10 on runs.

"They overreacted a little bit and we had some really good blocks and Cedric [Hill] did a really good job of blocking for me downfield," Grothe said. "I think about anybody would have scored on that. But I was winded the rest of the game."

McCoy scored of runs of 1, 1 and 12 yards and now has 14 touchdowns, breaking Tony Dorsett's Pitt freshman record of 13 in 1973. McCoy is 20 yards away from joining Dorsett (1,686 yards in 1973) and Curvin Richards (1,228 yards in 1988) as the only Pitt freshmen to gain more than 1,200 yards in a season.

McCoy had 55 yards on 18 carries and has 1,180 yards, 81 yards off the Big East freshman record of 1,261 yards by Rutgers' Terrell Willis in 1993.

"It's tough to feel good about any record when you lose the game," McCoy said.

Bostick threw touchdown passes of 37 yards to Maurice Williams and 10 yards to Darrell Strong while going 24-of-37 for 298 yards. He now has eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions this season.

"The mistakes we made, we're better than that," Bostick said. "It's hard when you keep putting yourself in third-and-15 situations. There's really not a perfect play you can call for those."

Allen stepped in front of a Bostick pass intended for Strong and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown that put South Florida up 27-14 on the final play of the third quarter. Five minutes later, Moffitt was dragged down at the 1 on his interception return, but Ford scored his sixth touchdown in three games and 12th of the season.

Ford, also a freshman, scored from the 15 late in the first quarter to tie it at 7, after Sam Miller ran 29 yards for a first down to the 17 on a fake punt.

Williams' 21-yard interception return score with 5 1/2 minutes remaining was his third TD of the season and his 16th career interception.

"One of the receivers was teasing me, 'You've got more touchdowns than me this year," Williams said.

South Florida also won nine games in 2002 and last season.