BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- South Florida started fast, made clutch defensive stops and cashed in on a series of fourth-down gambles.
Bowl neophytes? The Bulls hardly looked the part Saturday in a 24-7 victory over East Carolina in the inaugural PapaJohns.com Bowl, the first bowl win for the decade-old program.
South Florida's only previous bowl appearance was a shutout loss last year in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. But a team that had ended the regular season with an upset win over West Virginia might have topped that one for the Bulls' biggest victory.
"We talked about how important it was to win this game," said South Florida coach Jim Leavitt, whose team finished 9-4 to tie its season high for wins set in 2002. "We felt like if we'd win today, this would be the best team in the history of the University of South Florida -- which is a short history.
"Even so, that was a big thing."
The Bulls played the scoreless second half without quarterback Matt Grothe. The Big East freshman of the year was kicked in the right shin in the second quarter and returned only for the next and final series of the half, but the defense kept turning back East Carolina (7-6).
Plus, the Bulls went 5-for-5 on fourth-down conversions on drives that resulted in 17 points.
Struggling to make a comeback, the Pirates drove inside the South Florida 30 five times in the second half only to fall short. Sacks, a missed field goal, a fumble and a failed fourth-and-goal pass doomed the threats on trips into the so-called red zone.
"Statistically this was not a lopsided game," East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said. "It was a red zone game."
He said the Bulls had "the fastest defense we've played all year."
South Florida racked up six sacks, including two after East Carolina set up first down from the 4-yard line on that late drive led by backup quarterback Rob Kass. Fittingly, the game ended with the Pirates at the Bulls 12, coming up short once again.
In the first bowl game at Legion Field since the 1990 Hall of Fame, East Carolina outgained South Florida 317-286 in total yards.
The Bulls jumped ahead with two touchdowns in the first 7 minutes. They kept three scoring drives alive with fourth-down conversions and got an early gift
East Carolina's James Pinkney couldn't handle a low shotgun snap on the game's second play and South Florida recovered at the 16. Benjamin Williams scored on a draw on the next play. He scored again on a 1-yard plunge on fourth-and-goal and finished with 67 yards on 17 carries.
"From the first play, our linemen came out and blocked pretty good," Williams said. "On that first play they blew a hole open and I just hit it."
Both quarterbacks came up with big touchdown passes after that. First, Pinkney hit Bobby Good for a 48-yard touchdown on third-and-26. Then, Grothe found Amarri Jackson for a 37-yarder on third-and-10. Grothe returned for one series after being helped off the field but didn't play after that.
Grothe and backup Pat Julmiste were both efficient if not spectacular. Grothe was 6-for-10 for 81 yards. Julmiste was 6-of-8 for 49 yards and accomplished Leavitt's main second-half goal of avoiding turnovers.
"I knew our defense was going to come out and play," Grothe said. "It was just a matter of whether our offense was, too. We just had to match their intensity."
Pinkney finished his college career with an ineffective performance and walked off the field late with a heavily iced left elbow. He completed just eight passes in 25 attempts for 125 yards and took a pounding from the defenders. Kass was 10-of-19 for 138 yards. Holtz said he didn't have any information about Pinkney's injury.
Good finished with five catches for 116 yards.
"It was just frustrating that we'd get down there and couldn't put points up," Good said of the stalled drives. "They're a great defense and put us in some binds, but we really needed to finish better."
They needed to start the game better, too.
"I don't know what it was, but they definitely were faster, stronger and more athletic than us early," Holtz said.
South Florida defensive coordinator Wally Burnham missed the game following the death of his mother, Cora Burnham, of congestive heart failure earlier in the day.
That served as motivation for the players.
"I told them, 'You already have a cause for this game, but now you have a huge cause," Leavitt said. "And I thought the guys did that. They were definitely ready to play."