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Bulls' Grothe seeks the right balance

8/22/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Looking for a new challenge this summer, Matt Grothe decided to take up golf. He quickly became addicted to the game and, despite never playing before, got his score down to an 83.

Then he signed up for some formal lessons.

"I found out that the way I swing isn't the way most people swing," he said. "So it messed me all up. After that, I was averaging probably around a 99."

There's a similar dynamic at work in football for the South Florida quarterback. Never a conventional pocket passer, Grothe burst onto the scene as a freshman by following his instincts. Now, he says, he needs to find a way to blend his innate playmaking skills with a more fundamental approach.

It's not like he needs a drastic overhaul. One of the Big East's top dual threats, Grothe threw for more than 2,600 yards and 14 touchdowns last year while rushing for 872 yards and another 10 scores. He led a Bulls' offense that scored 34.7 points per game.

But with 10 starters back on offense and expectations running wild in Tampa, Grothe figures the offense can be even better this year. And he said the best way to do that is for him to cut down on mistakes.

For all his production the past two years, Grothe has thrown 14 interceptions each season, many of them coming on plays where he tried to force the issue too much. He got used to playing like that as a true freshman, when he pretty much was the entire offense. Now, he's got more weapons around him, including the top four pass catchers from last season and running backs Mike Ford and Ben Williams.

"My freshman year, I had to run around a lot and make plays, and a lot of times it didn't work out and I'd throw an interception or whatever," he said. "So the next year I'm thinking, 'Let's not force any balls.' Then some of the plays I made my freshman year didn't work any more.

"So I've got to find that medium. It's difficult because [my improvisation] is a big part of our offense. I know I'm going to make a few mistakes here or there, but it's just getting rid of those unneeded, unwanted and forced ones."

Grothe still aches from last year's 38-33 home loss to Cincinnati, when he threw four interceptions and lost a fumble. In particular he regrets the second-half pick he threw in the end zone when he had two open receivers underneath. Take one of those turnovers back and maybe South Florida wins and finishes no worse than tied for first in the Big East.

"There were plays last year I could have avoided if I had just focused a little more," he said. "Sometimes I go out there and, I know what I'm doing, but I don't think things all the way through. I've really pounded into my head this year, 'Think. Just don't be dumb.'"

But coach Jim Leavitt doesn't want his quarterback to overthink things or become too robotic. Creativity and the ability to make something happen when a play breaks down are Grothe's biggest strengths.

"I think his experience can help him," Leavitt said. "He's going to be who he is. We're going to let him just play ball."

Grothe hopes he can be a little quicker and more elusive this season after cutting out his daily trips to Chick-Fil-A and firming up his physique. He said he tipped the scales at 220 pounds at one point during spring practice. After Friday morning's practice, he weighed himself at 199.

And maybe when he finds the right balance between instinct and fundamentals, his golf scores will go back down too.

"I want to get back out there and figure out what the heck I'm doing," he said.