Bowl trends strange for ECU, USF

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 22, 2006

By John Zenor

Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — East Carolina scored 61 points in its last bowl game — and lost. South Florida, meanwhile, allowed a stingy 14 points in its only bowl appearance.

That was also a loss.

Both teams would like to avoid repeats of those exasperating experiences in today’s inaugural Papa John’ Bowl at Legion Field, a bowl site for the first time since 1990’s All-America Bowl.

Last year, South Florida (8-4) made its first bowl appearance since starting the program from scratch a decade ago, losing 14-0 to N.C. State in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

ECU (7-5) hasn’t been back to a bowl since a 64-61, double-overtime loss to Marshall in the 2001 GMAC Bowl — which remains the highest scoring bowl game in history.

“This would definitely raise the bar for us,” said Pirates receiver and former A.L. Brown star Aundrae Allison, who will play in the Senior Bowl after the season. “Going into next year, teams are going to have to rate East Carolina a 50-50 game. Going into this year, they probably had the feeling they would beat us 100 percent.”

USF grabbed its own measure of respect with a 24-19 upset of No. 13 West Virginia in its regular-season finale. The Bulls are hoping to follow it up with a milestone win for Jim Leavitt’s young program.

“It’s never been done before,” linebacker Stephen Nicholas said. “If we could get that done, that’d be great.”

The two former Conference USA rivals have more in common than just those frustrating bowl experiences, including hot streaks.

The Bulls have won six of their last seven games, including that West Virginia win; the Pirates are on a 5-1 roll, capped by a win at North Carolina State.

Both teams have had memorable — or, perhaps, forgettable — games at Legion Field. South Florida lost 40-17 in Alabama’s last game at the historic stadium once dubbed “The Football Capital of the South.”

Leavitt also played on a Missouri defense that beat Bear Bryant’s top-ranked Tide 20-7 in the 1975 opener. It was Alabama’s only loss of the season.

Leavitt is far more interested in the present tense.

“We’ve never won a bowl game. We’ve never won in December,” Leavitt said. “We haven’t done those things; those are uncharted waters for us.”

East Carolina is 0-3 in Birmingham and has lost all nine of its games played in the state of Alabama, including two GMAC Bowl defeats. The Pirates also lost 17-12 earlier this season at UAB after losing a late fumble inside the 5-yard line.

Skip Holtz, son of former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach Lou Holtz, has sparked a revival of the Pirates this season. They were picked to finish last in their division.

But he’s not taking the credit.

“I keep saying this is the story of a senior class that was tired of losing,” said Holtz, who has already received a contract extension.

But Allison said Holtz made it clear how he wanted the Pirates to approach this game.

“He laid the foundation early that we’re not going to change anything,” he said. “We’re going to do what’s got us here. That’s real important.”

The Bulls are led by quarterback Matt Grothe, the Big East freshman of the year. He passed for 2,495 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 607 yards and nine TDs.

“I think that everything is focused on their quarterback,” Holtz said. “He is a competitor and a winner. He is the focal point.”

East Carolina counters South Florida’s athletic youngster with veteran James Pinkney, whose 37 consecutive starts ranks fifth among active Division I-A quarterbacks.

The Pirates are slight underdogs but don’t seem to mind that status.

“We love going against someone who’s supposed to be a big, bad dog,” Ross said.

“We just look at it as another big challenge for everybody to come step up and show the nation that we’re for real.”