ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Matt Grothe and South Florida didn't have a problem getting motivated for what amounted to an extra home game. After floundering the second half of the season, the magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl gave them a chance to feel good about themselves again.
"I think the last few weeks we were trying so hard to win a game that we forgot how to play football," Grothe said after throwing for 236 yards and three touchdowns on the way to a 41-14 rout of Memphis on Saturday.
The junior quarterback moved ahead of West Virginia's Pat White as the Big East's career total offense leader, also rushing for 83 yards on 15 carries to earn the most outstanding player award.
Grothe and White, a senior who will finish his season in the Meineke Bowl on Dec. 27, are the only players in league history to amass more than 10,000 yards total offense. White has 10,142 in 49 games, and Grothe finished the night with 10,242 in 39 games.
"Its easy to get away from (playing the way he expects to play) and easy to lose focus whenever we get down," Grothe said. "In my opinion, whenever ... we can just go out and play football and not worry about what people are saying, then we do well."
USF (8-5) scored on four of its first five possessions to build a 24-14 halftime lead, forcing Memphis (6-7) to play catch-up and essentially taking 1,000-yard rusher Curtis Steele out of the Tigers' game plan.
"The bottom line was we couldn't tackle the quarterback," Memphis coach Tommy West said. "They beat us pretty good on both sides of the ball."
Arkelon Hall threw for one TD and ran for another, however Steele was held to 48 yards rushing on 12 attempts by a stout run defense determined to redeem itself this postseason after giving up 253 yards to Oregon's Jonathan Stewart during USF's lopsided loss in last year's Sun Bowl.
Hall, meanwhile, was 15-of-31 for 154 yards and no interceptions, with much of that coming on a swing pass that Steele turned into a 50-yard gain early in the second half. He ran 3 yards for a first-quarter touchdown, then threw 2 yards to Duke Calhoun for the Tigers' other TD just before halftime.
It was the first meeting between the former Conference USA rivals since USF left that league for the Big East in 2005. The teams split four games between 2001 and 2004, and Memphis relished the challenge of facing an opponent from a BCS conference for the first time in five bowl appearances under coach Tommy West.
The Tigers, who won six of nine games to become bowl eligible after an 0-3 start, viewed Saturday as an opportunity to gauge how much they've progressed toward a goal of having a BCS-caliber program.
On this day, they were nowhere close to a South Florida team that began the season with high expectations after being ranked as high as No. 2 by the Associated Press in 2007. The Bulls won their first five before stumbling badly in the Big East and winding up in a bowl game just 32 miles from USF's main campus in Tampa.
Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg is close enough that coach Jim Leavitt and his players bused from the team hotel back to campus for practice all week, truly making it seem like an extra home game rather than a bowl trip.
"Our guys did a great job of getting us to this stage. We've got some work to do to belong on this stage," West said, adding that the Tigers were not fast enough or physical enough to keep pace with the Bulls.
Memphis fell to 0-3 against opponents from BCS conferences this season and is 2-13 since 2001.
"We're pretty good at throwing it and catching it. But when you're a non-BCS team playing a BCS team, to play on that stage you have to match what they do, and you have to get more physical," West said. "You could see today why they're a BCS team and we're not."