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Memphis battles South Florida in inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl

St. Petersburg, FL (Sports Network) - The first St. Petersburg Bowl is set to take place this weekend, as the South Florida Bulls square off against the Memphis Tigers at Tropicana Field.

The Bulls entered the 2008 season with lofty expectations and their first preseason ranking in school history. After a 5-0 start and a Top 10 ranking, USF appeared well on its way to fulfilling expectations and was even considered a national title contender by some. Things however, didn't quite play out as expected, as the Bulls dropped five of their last seven games to finish just 7-5 during the regular season. While the team didn't quite live up to the hype, it still earned a spot in a fourth straight bowl game.

"There's great programs out there not going to bowl games this year," stated head coach Jim Leavitt about his team's achievement of making it to the postseason.

USF has posted a 1-2 ledger in its prior three bowl showings, including a 56-21 loss to Oregon in the Sun Bowl last year.

As for Memphis, it needed wins in three of its last four games, including a 45-6 triumph over Tulane in its regular-season finale, to become bowl eligible at 6-6.

"There is a feeling of accomplishment for this team, in particular because of how we started the season," stated head coach Tommy West. "We finished 6-3 after losing the first three games. There is a sense of accomplishment from doing that after the way we started. "

This is the Tigers' seventh bowl appearance, having gone 4-2 in their prior outings. Last season, the program participated in the New Orleans Bowl, where it was handled, 44-27, by Florida Atlantic.

Memphis and USF have some history against one another, battling each other in four straight years from 2001-04. The series is tied at 2-2, with the Tigers winning the first and last encounters in the rivalry.

The Tigers have the ability to move the ball on the ground or through the air, as they are gaining 205.6 rushing ypg and 225.6 passing ypg on the season. The balanced attack has helped the team to score a solid 28.2 ppg and convert 48 percent of its third down opportunities. Curtis Steele, a juco transfer, has made a huge impact for this offense, as he has rushed for 1,175 yards and seven touchdowns. He is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, helping him become the program's first 1,000-yard rusher since DeAngelo Williams in 2005. Quarterback Arkelon Hall, another juco transfer, played a big role in the success of this team as well, passing for 2,121 yards and 11 scores. The versatile Hall also rushed for 194 yards and a pair of scores and he did this despite missing a couple of games following an injury. Carlos Singleton emerged as Hall's top target in the passing game, as he caught 50 balls for 759 yards and five scores.

Memphis had some trouble keeping opposing teams off the scoreboard this season, allowing 26.0 ppg. The defense didn't fare all that well against the run, surrendering 146.2 ypg, but it did to a decent job against the pass, yielding 195.6 ypg. Creating turnovers wasn't a big strength of this unit, with 17 takeaways to its credit, but it did have a little more success bringing down opposing quarterbacks, recording 20 sacks. Despite missing a couple of games, Clinton McDonald was the team's top pass rusher during the regular-season, finishing with seven sacks. Alton Starr was the squad's top tackler with 86 on the year, and Jeremy Longstreet ranked second to him with 75 stops.

USF's offense stumbled down the stretch, failing to reach 21 points in any of its final five games of the regular season. Quarterback Matt Grothe is the heart-and-soul of this unit and tried to do it all for the Bulls. The dual- threat gunslinger set a career-high with 2,675 passing yards and he also paced the team with 508 rushing yards. Grothe threw 15 touchdowns and ran for four more, but he also made some bad decisions, throwing 14 interceptions. Jessie Hester is his top target with 53 catches and 557 yards on the season, but Taurus Johnson is also dangerous, racking up 458 yards and a team-best five touchdowns. Tailback Mike Ford adds 373 yards and five scores to the Bulls' ground attack, which is averaging 159.8 ypg on the season.

On defense is where the Bulls were more consistent, as well as stingy, holding opposing teams to 20.5 ppg and a mere 291.8 total ypg. The unit is ranked in the Top 10 against the run, allowing only 97.7 ypg on a mere 2.9 yard per carry average. The defense though, has only managed 17 takeaways and that has to be disappointing considering the talent on this side of the ball. On a positive note, USF did notch 22 sacks despite an off year by George Selvie. The talented end leads the team with 5.5 sacks, but that is well off his mark of 14.5 from a year ago. He has also made only 12.5 TFLs after leading the nation with 31.5 in 2007. Tyrone McKenzie is another player worth noting, as he paces the Bulls in tackles (105) and TFLs (14) on the year.

12/17 10:33:33 ET