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Death of a Dream

This feels familiar.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Temple Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This was bound to happen.

At least, that’s how it felt. Ever since the East Carolina game, I felt like I’ve been spending this season waiting for the other shoe to drop. This whole year has felt rickety, like the Bulls were one or two plays away from collapsing at the seams and finishing 9-4 or 8-5 or some Leavitt Trademark Record again. On Friday night it finally happened, and even though USF was competitive until the final whistle, you had a feeling something rotten was in the air from the Owls’ opening drive, where they converted third down after third down, marching down the field for a field goal and chewing up half of the first quarter in one big blow. This was a gut punch the likes of which we haven’t felt in a while— one that, despite my best efforts to make him stop talking, Jeff Odom labelled perfectly.

Do you remember where you were when Rutgers beat USF in 2007? I remember perfectly; I was in middle school and had the rare privilege of never having seen my favorite team lose a game before. When my father realized what was about to happen, when Amarri Jackson was called for offensive pass interference, he escorted me to my bedroom to spare my sanity. I snuck out and watched the rest of the game in the hallway through a sliver of light between the door and the wall.

I don’t want to mince words in describing this game. Though it may not have had as high stakes as that Thursday night in Piscataway nine years ago, it’s the only other USF game that’s going to sear itself into my memory the same way. I’m going to remember 6-1, essentially a win away from the Bulls’ first division title (this is more accurate than it seems: with a win, USF would’ve had a two-and-a-half game lead on everyone in the East save UCF); I’m going to remember Quinton Flowers limping off the field after having the game of his life; I’m going to remember Ryquell Armstead bursting through a hole in the offensive line again and again and again and again.

Here’s another thing I will remember, and don’t allow yourself to be convinced otherwise: USF did not fail to rise to the challenge on Friday night. Nothing about their performance was unexpected, and nothing about it was particularly worse than any other game they played this season in which their defense provided all the resistance of a wet napkin. In fact, Quinton Flowers and company were particularly magnificent, absorbing blow after blow from the Temple offense and finding a way to respond until the very end, when the Bulls’ hopes of a comeback finally drowned themselves in offensive line penalties and a Brett Kean pop fly to centerfield. The defense wasn’t anything we didn’t see against Dalvin Cook, or against Cincinnati or East Carolina’s sorry running attacks. It’s not easy to beat USF this year, and Temple had to play a near-flawless game to do so: their long, piecemeal touchdown drives essentially chopped the game in half, and Philip Walker somehow metamorphosed into Tom Brady during the week and made one gorgeous, indefensible throw on third-and-long after another.

But this is what I signed up for. I chose to be a USF fan by my own volition, because in the summer of 2006 someone gave me a preseason college football magazine and I ran up and down every single word of every single preview until I found the team that was objectively the best. Not the one that I liked the best, not the one where I wanted to go to school, not the one that had the most tradition or was projected to win the national title, but the one that was, head to toe, the summation of everything I loved about the sport. An uber-athletic, unpredictable offense. Future NFL talents on defense. A whole roster with chips on their shoulders the size of a small country. Aggressive, innovative, fun, and undeniably on the rise.

This is not to make some grand, sweeping College Football Blogger statement about how This Loss Was Okay, because it wasn’t. It stings really, really badly, because this team was arguably closer than they’ve ever been to that brass ring, only to see it slip just beyond their fingertips for yet another year. The season’s not over, but USF probably isn’t going to win their conference in 2016. They’re not going to play in a New Year’s Day Bowl. They might not even win their division.

We are not USF fans because we wanted instant gratification; we are USF fans because we believed that building something— and contributing to a part of it, however small— was infinitely more rewarding than marveling at something that’s already been built. Think about that: every ticket you buy, every game you attend, every victory you witness live is actually contributing a small building block to this program’s legacy. That’s something undeniably special, something not very many schools can claim. I have no idea when that foundation will finally be finished, when all the preseason and September hype will be consummated into something real and tangible, but I do know that moment will be worth every bit of frustration that came before it. USF will one day get its moment to stand toe-to-toe with the elites of the sport, and in that moment, we will all remember and entirely comprehend why we support this team and not a Florida, Florida State or Miami.

The dream very likely died tonight, just as it did nine years ago. But for the first time in a while, I can see, in this year’s squad, the same team that I fell in love with as a child. It’s been a long, long time coming. The dream died, but at least we can dream again.