Despite some sloppy play and four giveaways, the USF Bulls eased their way to a 42-27 win over the UConn Huskies Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.
“We could have played a lot better, we could every week, but our guys found a way to win the ballgame,” Taggart said. “I think we’ve been saying our football team is a team that doesn’t flinch. We keep playing.”
The game was the first between the Bulls and Huskies to be decided by more than eight points since 2006. It was also the first game USF has ever won with a turnover margin of -4 or worse.
In a first quarter played in on-again, off-again rain, UConn (3-4, 1-3 American) got things started with a clock-eating 15-play, 66-yard drive that ended with a 26-yard field goal by Bobby Puyol. They were the first points the Huskies have scored in the first quarter this season.
But the Gulf Coast Offense responded just two plays later: running back Marlon Mack took the first offensive snap for 21 yards, and then quarterback/magician Quinton Flowers escaped three would-be tacklers and scampered 54 yards for a highlight reel touchdown to give the Bulls an early 7-3 lead.
“That’s us. That’s how we want to be,” Taggart said. “Gulf Coast Offense, that’s what we do. Our nickname will be two-minute. We’re always in two-minute mode with our guys. I think you look at our guys, how they don’t flinch but they also know they can score fast. They know they can go out and do the things that they are capable of. I think that helps the team. It helps the confidence overall.”
The Bulls have had 21 touchdowns drives under two minutes this year, including four on Saturday.
After Flowers’ run, it was a defensive struggle for the rest of the first half. Eight of the next ten drives ended in punts. The others were USF’s first unsuccessful fourth-down conversion of the year from the UConn 33, and an incredible interception by UConn’s Jhavon Williams at the UConn 1.
Flowers’ second touchdown run, from eight yards out, capped a four-play, 49-yard drive that gave the Bulls (6-1, 3-0 American) a 14-3 halftime lead.
The second half brought more sloppiness. Flowers threw his second interception on USF’s first drive, when he threw a go route too far inside to Marlon Mack. After Arkeel Newsome caught a 70-yard pass from Bryant Shirreffs to cut the lead to 14-10, Rodney Adams fumbled on the UConn 26 and Newsome scored three plays later to give the Huskies a 17-14 lead.
“Turnovers are bad. We have to take care of the football,” Taggart said. “The ball moved around a lot and that’s just being careless with the football... It’s good that our guys responded. They had the momentum. It’s tough for a team to get momentum, but it’s good for our guys to not flinch and regain the momentum. That’s the second time this year we’ve done that.”
Mack later lost a fumble at the UConn 2-yard line to kill another drive. Adams would also fumble in the fourth quarter, but Marquez Valdes-Scantling saved the day with a recovery.
Despite the turnovers, USF was still able to rack up 529 yards of total offense, 319 rushing. Mack (107) and Flowers (157) each rushed for over 100 yards for the second straight week. The Bulls’ streak of 200-yard rushing games hit 12 in a row, the best in FBS. They also kept alive their streaks of scoring at least 35 points and gaining 440 yards of offense, both reaching 11 straight games.
Flowers finished the game 23-for-37 for 213 yards passing and two touchdowns, along with the two interceptions. He found a wide-open Valdes-Scantling to give USF a 28-17 lead. With five minutes left, he threw a jump ball to tight end Mitchell Wilcox, who started in place of the injured TE Elkanah Dillon (ankle). Wilcox, in single coverage, went up and took the ball away from safety Obi Melifonwu as he went to the ground. The catch put USF up 35-20.
“I ate my Wheaties this morning,” Wilcox said. “It was a go route, I made eye contact with Quinton. He gave me a chance and I came up with it.”
Mack salted away the game with a 34-yard touchdown, aided by blocks from Flowers and Wilcox. Mack now holds the school record for most rushing touchdowns in a career with 26, breaking a tie with B.J. Daniels. It was also Mack’s 17th game with 100+ yards rushing, extending his own record.
Linebacker Auggie Sanchez and safety Jaymon Thomas led the way for the Bulls defensively. Sanchez had a team-high 11 tackles and a career-high three sacks. Thomas chipped in seven tackles and two huge plays in the third quarter, when he blitzed on consecutive downs for a TFL and sack of Shirreffs.
For the first time this year, the Bulls were able to hold an opponent under 100 yards rushing (36 carries for 72 yards). Taggart was pleased with the defense, and said he believes that one bad game (478 allowed on the ground vs. FSU) has swayed the perception of the rush defense.
“They did a great job,” Taggart said. “Talked to our guys all week long about how I’m tired of people talking about our defense. ‘We can’t stop the run and we can’t do this and that.’ We need to go out there and show them that we’re capable of doing those things. We had one bad game, really bad game, which makes it look like we can’t stop the run. But our guys have done a good job of stopping the run throughout the year.”
Sanchez echoed his coaches sentiments.
“I’m tired of hearing that USF can’t play defense,” Sanchez said. “USF is an offensive dominant team. It ticks us off as a defense. Just because we played one bad game, we’re viewed as not having a good enough defense. It makes us mad and gives us a little bit of extra motivation each week.”
For UConn, Shirreffs completed 22 of 39 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns. Newsome ran for 72 yards and added 90 yards receiving with two scores. Standout UConn wide receiver Noel Thomas made 12 catches for 127 yards.
Taggart said Hoggins wasn’t ready to play and hopes he will be ready for Temple on Friday night. CB Johnny Ward did step in for Hoggins and played well, finishing with five tackles and pass break up. Taggart also mentioned after the game that Dillon could’ve played if the Bulls really needed him.