'Warm-ups' over, Bulls focus on Big East title chase

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
South Florida finished its nonconference schedule a perfect 5-0 and is now ranked 10th in both polls. None of that means anything to quarterback Matt Grothe.

"Those games were our warm-ups, our preseason games," Grothe said. "These are the games that matter."

The Bulls start Big East play on Thursday night against Pittsburgh (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Raymond James Stadium, and they say winning the conference is their one and only goal. That's understandable. For all the promise and hype that's surrounded this young program, South Florida has never placed higher than third in a league race, either in Conference USA or the Big East.

Last year, the Bulls rose to No. 2 in the polls after a 6-0 start but lost a Thursday night Big East game against a team they were favored to beat -- Rutgers. That triggered a three-game losing streak. So this time around, reaching the top 10 again isn't causing much of a celebration around the campus.

"We were in the same position last year and we let it slip away," Grothe said. "This time, we've got to show some maturity, take the bad with the good and execute, and we'll stay here for awhile.

"Most of the guys on the team [have] been around each other now for three, four or five years. We know what it takes, and we've definitely grown up a lot since last year."

Head coach Jim Leavitt's typically terse answers get even shorter during big game weeks. About all Leavitt would share at his media gathering this week was, "It's a whole different mentality now as we head into the conference schedule."

Pittsburgh (3-1, 1-0 Big East) brings a different challenge for South Florida, too. The Bulls rank fourth in the nation in rushing defense, yielding just 58 yards per game on the ground. But most of their opponents have run spread offenses, letting them play primarily nickel defense.

The Panthers will pound the ball between the tackles with LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling and will try to control the time of possession. South Florida will have to go a lot more to its 4-3 formation, and it's missing starting linebackerBrouce Mompremier (neck) and could be without defensive end George Selvie and tackle Terrell McClain (ankle injuries).

"This game is going to be played in the trenches," defensive end Craig Marshall said.

But Pittsburgh will have a hard time keeping up with the Bulls' offense if Grothe continues his razor sharp play. He's leading the Big East in passing and total offense and has thrown 104 straight passes without an interception, spanning the last three games. Against NC State he completed his first 11 attempts. He has spread the ball around to 15 different receivers this season.

"We know we're a good team when we play well and take care of the football," Grothe said. "We can beat anybody as long as we do those things."

If the Bulls get by Pitt, they'll have two weeks to heal before taking on lowly Syracuse at home. They could easily be 7-0 before heading on the road to Louisville and Cincinnati, and if other teams ahead of them keep losing, they'll continue to rise in the polls. They may even barge their way into the BCS title game discussion.

But none of that really registers right now for a team trying to stay focused on a simpler goal.

"Nothing really matters if we don't win a Big East championship," Marshall said.