Slowly, sort of like the lobster in a pot, the heat had been starting to build. It wasn't unbearable, it may not have even been noticeable, but it was there. You could see that USF was tangibly improved over last year, and you could see glimpses of what would hopefully be the future, but the results weren't following. The offense wasn't clicking. The defense wasn't getting off the field when it needed to. The in-game adjustments were missing. It was getting hard to stay patient with Willie Taggart and his rebuilding project.
So if that was impatience, how do you think everyone felt when Tulsa ran Mike White's second pass of the game back for a touchdown? Or when the Golden Hurricane scored on four of their last five possessions in the first half? What about when USF's only sustained drive of the half was snuffed out by a Kennard Swanson fumble? When they had four three-and-outs? When White appeared to fumble and Tulsa scooped and scored? (Mercifully that was overturned on replay.) When they were down 27-7 at halftime? Against Tulsa, for God's sake? We were all hurtling towards a debate about whether Taggart was on the hot seat after only 19 games in charge. That wouldn't have been a good thing for anyone.
But somehow, someway, with probably no one believing they could do it except the players and coaches, the Bulls put a stop to everything and rallied to win the game. (The quote in the title of this post is what Taggart said he told his players in the locker room at halftime, opting for encouragement instead of giving them all the Sir Alex hairdryer treatment like a lot of USF fans probably would have done.) There are a lot of candidates for the biggest moment in this comeback, which was the largest in school history:
- Maybe it was Marlon Mack's 54-yard touchdown run on the third play of the second half. USF really needed to score on that first drive, and they did it very quickly, moving 78 yards in only three plays. Getting a touchdown on the board almost immediately was a rallying point.
- Maybe it was when USF made the adjustment to let Andre Davis start releasing up the field off a bubble screen look. USF ran that bubble screen a couple of times early on, and Tulsa kept bringing the safety down to the line of scrimmage, leaving Davis matched up 1-on-1 on the outside. White threw downfield for Davis four times in the second half when he was in single coverage, and it worked all four times for a total of 141 yards and three touchdowns. I cannot fathom why Tulsa kept trying to match up on Andre Davis with no help over the top. They paid dearly.
- Maybe it was Mike McFarland's blocked field goal early in the final period. At that point, it looked like USF's rally might have crested. Although the Bulls had cut it to 30-21 after Davis's 15-yard touchdown reception, they followed it with their only three-and-out of the second half, and Tulsa had quickly moved into scoring position again. The Bulls got a stop and forced a 47-yard field goal attempt that McFarland rejected. (That's four blocked kicks in McFarland's career. Even though there's no official listing in the school record books, that has to be the most anyone's ever had.) Most importantly, it jump-started the USF sideline again.
- Maybe it was Mike White throwing on the rollout to Rodney Adams for a crucial third-down conversion on the ensuing drive. You all read Ryan's breakdown of White's passing a couple weeks ago. He can throw some really nice passes when he's standing still in the pocket, but it all slips away when he has to throw on the move. This play was a classic Sprint Right Option call. Adams peeled out to the sideline, and White rolled right and hit him right on the numbers beyond the sticks to keep the drive moving. Two plays later, D'Ernest Johnson made a fantastic catch for another first down, and then Davis caught his second 15-yard touchdown on the following play. It was 30-28. Game on.
- Maybe it was simply Andre Davis's 85-yard wonderstrike that completely stunned the crowd and gave USF the lead. Another "bubble takeoff", another 1-on-1 matchup, and White laid it out there perfectly for Davis to run underneath. (You could argue that Davis pushed off, and maybe a referee whose name rhymes with Dohn McJaid might have thrown a flag. But the officials let everyone play in the secondary today.) Davis hauled the pass in at midfield and cruised into the end zone. On that play, Davis tied or broke a slew of school career receiving records, and he also tied the second-longest pass play in school history.
- Maybe it was the way the whole team finished the game strong. D'Ernest Johnson ran extremely hard on USF's last drive to help pad the lead with a Marvin Kloss field goal, and the defense, which limited Tulsa to only three second-half points, only allowed one first down on their last two drives.
When a team is rebuilding, you often hear commentators say, "Well, they're getting better even though the results aren't there yet. If they can just win one of these games, though..." Time will tell, but today might have been one of those games.
Postgame interviews are below:
Mike White (hold tight on this one, it will be right side up soon):
Auggie Sanchez and Elkino Watson: