BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The USF Bulls fought back to defeat the South Carolina Gamecocks 46-39 in overtime in the Birmingham Bowl Thursday afternoon.
Despite blowing an 18-point lead, the Bulls (11-2) never trailed in the game and forced five turnovers, including a Khalid McGee fumble recovery on the final play of the game after Mike Love sacked Gamecock quarterback Jake Bentley on fourth down.
USF’s possession in overtime lasted one play, their 12th such scoring drive of the season. Quinton Flowers scrambled out of the pocket and found tight end Elkanah Dillon in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.
The Bulls’ offense came out firing on all cylinders in the first half, but bogged down in the second half. Two of South Carolina’s turnovers came inside the USF 10-yard line, leading to some bad field position, but there was some conservative play-calling late in the game by interim coach T.J. Wiest and the staff.
Said Wiest, “We had a little more confidence in our run game. Early on, I wanted to take some chances, but as we went along I wanted to be a little smarter. I took a couple chances making some calls, some of them didn’t work out, so it was ‘OK, let’s just be smart.’”
Weist and company were very aggressive early in the game and pulled out plenty of tricks. USF went for it on fourth down on their first possession of the game, only to have Flowers’ pass to Marlon Mack tipped at the line of scrimmage. It was only the second time this season the Bulls failed to convert on fourth down.
Junior safety Devin Abraham intercepted Bentley on South Carolina’s first possession and returned it 21 yards to the Gamecock 46 to set the offense up with great field position. Flowers finished the drive with one of his three rushing touchdowns on the day. Weist then channeled his inner Mike Tomlin and went for two with a swinging gate play. Mitchell Wilcox snapped the ball to backup quarterback Brett Kean, then caught Kean’s pass in the end zone for two points.
Later in the game, Weist called for a surprise onside kick after safety Tajee Fullwood pick-sixed Bentley to give USF a 39-21 lead. South Carolina recovered, leading to a field goal.
Flowers was named the game’s MVP after completing 23 of 32 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns, plus 105 yards rushing and three more TDs. Overall USF had 469 yards of total offense, 333 of them in the first half.
Flowers cut his left hand pretty badly in the second half when his hand got caught in a South Carolina defender’s helmet. He taped it up and kept playing, but USF’s offense struggled from that point on as Flowers had trouble handling the ball properly. The Bulls managed just 28 yards in the fourth quarter.
While the defense caused five turnovers and sacked Bentley five times, they didn’t play well most of the game. (Charlie, you got some work to do, bud.) The Gamecocks (6-7) had a Birmingham Bowl-record 481 yards of offense, including 390 passing yards from Bentley on 32-of-43 passing. Missed assignments, missed tackles and poor angles plagued the unit as it has all season, and the 33-day layoff didn’t help fix anything.
When it absolutely mattered on fourth down, however, the defense came through.
“Be great for one play and we’ll win this ballgame,” linebacker Auggie Sanchez said to his teammates during the timeout before the last play. “That’s exactly what we did. Mike Love made a huge play and that was what we were stressing on the sideline. That’s what we were able to accomplish.”
“I can’t be more proud of these guys,” Weist said. “I just want to get in that locker room and hug them, and love them up. We started Charlie off right, Coach Strong.”
- Mack said he will talk to his parents and Coach Strong then decide about coming back for his senior year or declaring for the NFL Draft. He said the decision will come “sooner rather than later.” Mack carried 13 times for 50 yards, missing part of the game with a tweaked ankle.
- Rodney Adams caught seven passes for 67 yards. He set the single-season reception mark with 67, passing former Bulls’ WR Hugh Smith (62). He also tied his own single-season receiving yards record, tallying 822 for the second straight year.
- The Bulls scored at least 30 points for the 17th straight game, the longest such streak in NCAA.