Despite an unsettling start (and finish for that matter), the USF Bulls prevailed with a 27-20 win over Tulsa on senior night at Raymond James Stadium to wrap-up the regular season home slate and improve to 9-1 entering next week’s rivalry showdown in Orlando.
“It was a tale of two halves,” head coach Charlie Strong said. “First half, we moved the ball up and down the field, they couldn’t stop us. We come back in the second half and we couldn’t move the ball at all.”
After forcing a quick three-and-out to begin the game, Tulsa converted a 3rd and 21 as part of an 8-play, 71-yard touchdown drive to grab an early 7-0 lead.
It was only fitting that a couple of USF seniors in quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Darius Tice ignited a furious Bulls response, both playing in their final home game and both key players in the turnaround of the USF program.
A 25-yard touchdown pass from Flowers to Tyre McCants tied the game at 7-7, and a 54-yard touchdown run by Tice shortly after gave USF a 14-7 lead. The Bulls went on to score 21 points in less than five minutes after Flowers added another touchdown pass, this one to Darnell Salomon. It was only the second time this season USF scored at least 21 points in the opening quarter.
“There was a lot of emotion. It was great go out there and get the win,” Tice said. “We have to do a better job executing, but to see this program change right in front of my eyes, it’s a blessing.”
Tice finished the game with eight carries for 80 yards and the one touchdown.
With 30 seconds remaining in the first half, Tulsa cut the USF lead to just seven after Golden Hurricane quarterback Luke Skipper ran in untouched from 12-yards out. It was a 24-17 USF lead at halftime.
“We just need to put together a complete game which we haven’t done yet,” Strong added. “This Tulsa team has been in every game, they were going to come in here and play hard. Give them some credit.”
Skipper finished 6-for-11 for 119 yards passing but was removed from the game midway through the third quarter after taking a shot to the helmet.
On Tulsa’s first dive of the second half, Devon Jones-Stewart came up with a crucial blocked punt for USF, giving the Bulls the ball deep inside Golden Hurricane territory. It was the second blocked punt for the USF special teams this season.
Following the blocked punt, USF had to settle for a 48-yard field goal by Emilio Nadelman, another Bull playing in his final home game, increasing their lead to 27-17. Nadelman’s 20th made field goal of the season is a new USF record.
Speaking of USF records, with his fourth of 14 tackles, senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez broke the school record for career tackles with 367. Sanchez passes former USF standout, Kawika Mitchell.
USF held onto that 27-17 lead until a blocked punt, this time by Tulsa, was recovered and turned into a 38-yard Golden Hurricane field goal that make it a one score game with just under four minutes remaining.
The Bulls managed just six points in the final three quarters and averaged only 1.3 yards per play in the fourth quarter. Tulsa entered the game ranked second to last in the FBS in total defense.
With USF leading 27-20 and under a minute to play, the game came down to a 4th and 9 from the Bulls 35-yard line. (You might remember a certain 4th and long play not turning out so well a few weeks ago). Tulsa quarterback Chad President flung one high and away out of bounds though, securing a USF victory.
“Defensively, we rose up and made a bunch of big plays in the second half,” Strong added. “We were able to get off the field when we needed to.”
Unfortunately coming on Senior Night, Flowers had arguably his worst game of the season. He finished 11-for-28 for 142 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a lost fumble. Flowers completed only five of his final 17 passes in the game.
“I just made a lot of mistakes. I made a rookie mistake in the end zone and I put a lot of this on me,” Flowers said. “I missed a lot and I just have to execute better.”
Far from impressive, USF returns to action next week for the Black Friday finale in Orlando against C. Winner takes all.
“Our guys understand what's at stake,” Strong said. “This is what you want. It’s a big game, it’s a rival game.”
It is likely the biggest game in program history. Which USF team will show up?