The rapidly rising Bulls validated their first Top 25 ranking Saturday with a dominating 37-10 victory over North Carolina, setting themselves up for a much-anticipated Big East showdown that will bring them even more national exposure.
No. 5 West Virginia visits Raymond James Stadium next Friday for a nationally televised game that will draw the biggest crowd for a home game in USF history and give the Bulls (3-0) a chance to prove their victory over the Mountaineers in Morgantown last season wasn't a fluke.
"We know we're playing a great, great team coming in here. We're excited about the challenge," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "We're going to have to play awfully good football to have a chance."
The Bulls, in only their 11th season, cracked the Top 25 for the first time this week, largely on momentum generated by last November's 24-19 win at West Virginia and a 26-23 overtime victory at then-No. 17 Auburn two weeks ago.
All week long, Leavitt and his players insisted the ranking, and the buzz it has created around campus, would not affect their preparation for North Carolina, which has lost three straight after winning its first game under new coach Butch Davis.
"I think the guys appreciate it. I know I appreciate people knowing about us a little bit. It's just important to know how to handle it," Leavitt said.
"You really need to focus on playing good football. Anything that gets you away from doing that, you're not going to play good football, and you're not going to win."
That wasn't a problem Saturday.
Matt Grothe led long touchdown drives on USF's first two possessions, while the Bulls' swarming defense forced four turnovers and kept North Carolina (1-3) out of the end zone until just over a minute remained.
Grothe completed 17 of 30 passes for 230 yards and one touchdown before being replaced by backup Grant Gregory in the fourth quarter. The Bulls rushed for 194 yards and outgained the young, rebuilding Tar Heels 428-164 overall.
The Bulls marched 78 yards after the opening kickoff to take a 7-0 lead on Mike Ford's 5-yard touchdown run, then moved 83 yards in 10 plays on their next possession to go up 14-0 on Grothe's 12-yard scoring pass to Amarri Jackson.
"There's no easy way to look at a performance like this," said Davis, the former University of Miami and Cleveland Browns coach said.
"I told the players I don't think that we could have gotten off to a much poorer start than we did. We struggled in all three phases."
North Carolina lost its previous two games to East Carolina and Virginia by a total of five points. Redshirt freshman T.J. Yates threw for over 300 yards in both of those losses, however he found it much more difficult to throw against a USF secondary led by cornerbacks Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins.
The Tar Heels forced two fumbles by Grothe, but both times Yates -- harassed all day by a relentless pass rush -- turned the ball back over to USF on interceptions that set up field goals by Delbert Alvarado.
The quarterback's third interception, on a play when he was flushed out of the pocket, led to Benjamin Williams' 5-yard TD run that put USF up 30-3 late in the third quarter.
"For our football team to get better, we have got to become more multidimenisonal on offense," Davis said. "We cannot rely solely on T.J. Yates, expecting to throw for 350 yards a game and three of four touchdowns, and everything's going to be hunky dory."
Yates, who was sacked four times, finished 11-of-27 for 85 yards and four interceptions. Ryan Houston scored North Carolina's only touchdown on a 5-yard run with 1:04 left.
"I didn't think we'd come out and dominate the way we did," Grothe said. "We still could have had even more points. It could have been, easily, 50-something to 10."