TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- It didn't take Mike Ford long to establish himself as a player who can make a difference for South Florida.
The freshman running back, a former Alabama recruit who changed his mind about heading to the Southeastern Conference after the Crimson Tide fired Mike Shula as coach, ran for 83 yards and scored three touchdowns to lead the Bulls to a 28-13 victory over Elon on Saturday night.
The victory, in what was supposed be an easy tuneup for a big road test at Auburn, was not nearly as easy as the score might suggest.
Elon, of the Football Championship Subdivision formerly known as Division I-AA, stayed close until Matt Grothe threw a 24-yard TD pass to Amarri Jackson in the third quarter. Ford eliminated any chance for a comeback when he broke a tackle to race 48 yards to set up his 1-yard TD run with just over seven minutes to go.
Ford, who also caught a 1-yard TD pass from Grothe and scored on a 21-yard run that made it 14-3 in the third quarter, averaged nearly 14 yards per carry on six attempts. Grothe was 23-of-39 passing for 238 yards and two TDs.
Andrew Wilcox kicked a pair of 37-yard field goals for Elon (0-1), and the Phoenix made it interesting in the closing minutes when Scott Riddle threw a 28-yard TD pass to Terrell Hudgins to finish a 10-play, 72-yard drive.
Elon recovered the ensuing onside kick, but couldn't move the ball. Earlier, the Phoenix wasted a scoring opportunity when Riddle threw an interception at the South Florida 4, and Wilcox missed one long field goal try and had another attempt blocked.
South Florida (1-0) received votes in The Associated Press preseason poll for the first time this year and could break into the Top 25 for the first time in the program's 11-year history with a strong start against a schedule that includes September home games against North Carolina and West Virginia after next week's trip to Auburn.
For much of Saturday night, the Bulls looked like anything but a team that many feel is capable to challenging West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers for the Big East title and the league's lucrative BCS bowl berth.
Grothe was the Big East's rookie of the year in 2006, while Ford is one of the most heralded recruits USF has ever landed.
Although junior Benjamin Williams started at running back against Elon, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Ford is viewed as the solution for USF's biggest weakness of a year ago -- the absence of a consistent ground game.