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The Ninth Best Play of 2016: Willie’s Farewell

This play meant absolutely nothing, and yet it meant everything.

Central Florida v South Florida Photo by Jason Behnken / Getty Images

This is the second edition of our offseason feature in which we’re counting down the top ten plays of the 2016 USF football season. Check out previous editions below:

#10: Marlon Mack Makes History

2016’s edition of the War on I-4 was a nice breath of fresh air in a series that had largely been defined by blowouts (2005, 2007, 2014, 2015), and tight affairs that were tense in the way that going to the dentist is tense. Sure, something interesting will happen, but said event is likely to be unpleasant and leave you bleeding, numb, or in severe pain (2006, 2008, 2013). The 2016 game was genuinely entertaining, a cherry on top of already successful regular seasons for both teams. UCF had no prayer of shutting down USF on offense, but they staved off what looked like an early blowout with some clever trick plays from Scott Frost. They were still within arm’s length in the fourth quarter before a McKenzie Milton turnover-fest gave USF enough a cushion to pull away.

A 41-31 final margin wasn’t quite enough for Willie Taggart, though. Faced with 4th and goal from the UCF one-yard line and less than 30 seconds on the clock, Taggart could have walked away with a comfortable victory and his second straight win over the Bulls’ in-state rivals.

He, uh, did not.

If you had been following USF throughout the season, you knew this was going to happen. Willie Taggart is a lot of things, but he’s not a sentimentalist— this is the man who, up two possessions in the waning moments against East Carolina (a team with which USF has no publicly apparent beef!), tried to throw a pair of deep balls into the end zone. USF was on the UCF 1 here, and they were up against a rival who, within the last few years, had taken shots at USF’s program culture, planted a billboard in Tampa to boast, and employed George O’Leary. That ball was going in the end zone.

Let’s break it down:

With 42 seconds to go, USF is facing third and goal from the UCF 6. In most games, this would be the final play. This is not most games.

Taggart calls a run up the middle for D’Ernest Johnson, who pushes his way to the one-yard line and looks like he might break the goal line before UCF defensive tackle Tony Guerad gets a big ol’ handful of jersey and hauls Johnson back a few yards.

Play-by-play man Dave Ryan is impressed. “A violent throw-down!” he exclaims. His partner, former NFL safety Corey Chavous, echoes the sentiment: “He doesn’t care about the score,” Chavous says of Guerad. “He’s still talking noise to Wilcox.”

Indeed, he is. I’m not sure what exactly prompted this, as the two players didn’t interact on the previous play, but Guerad goes out of his way to say a few words to Mitchell Wilcox as the Bulls’ tight end walks back to the line of scrimmage. Wilcox isn’t pleased with this, and turns to confront Guerad before Elkanah Dillon wisely pulls him away.

One could get on Guerad’s case for talking trash while down two possessions and having given up 41 points, but I’m into it. It’s a rivalry game, and he just made a cool play. Talk your talk, Tony.

As you can see above, there are less than 30 seconds left in the game. USF doesn’t need to run another play. The Bulls have defeated the Knights, and they now look skywards towards the emperor of Rome, looking for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

Slowly but surely, the stadium erupts into cheers, imploring the Bulls to stay on the field. This is Willie Taggart’s thumbs-up. Without a second thought, the offense hurries back to the line of scrimmage to prepare the final blow.

UCF is dead.

The blocking is what makes this play for me. This is an entirely meaningless play in the grand scheme of things— UCF could force a fumble and return it 100 yards for a touchdown here, and very little would change. And yet, this is one of the most gorgeously blocked runs I’ve seen in a while; Dillon seals off the edge, Wilcox and a pulling Dominique Threatt combine to lock down the left side of the line, and Kofi Amichia exacts a bit of revenge by pancaking Guerad. Johnson waltzes through the hole with ease, and he could probably run back and forth through the line another fifty times before the opening closed up. The Bulls executed their final offensive play of the regular season to perfection.

Why was this play the best?

A couple reasons.

REASON #1: It added more friendly fire to the rivalry between USF and UCF. The War on I-4 was a very awkwardly-born rivalry. For years, both teams cared more about proving that they didn’t care about the other than they cared about winning the game. Couple that with the bad blood borne out by incidents like Matt Grothe receiving death threats and Doug Woolard getting his tires slashed, and it seemed like this whole series was headed in a really unhealthy direction.

Thanks in large part to the dismissal of, uh, zealous head coaches Jim Leavitt and George O’Leary, the rivalry has finally been officially acknowledged by both schools and has taken on a much more fun, palatable form. It was unbelievably satisfying to blatantly run up the score on UCF, but it was almost as satisfying to see a tacit acknowledgement from USF that this game mattered.

Taggart himself put it best in Steven Godfrey’s feature: “Scott told me after the game that he respected our team, but he’d remember that last touchdown. I told him, ‘Me too. I’ll remember it.’” Everything about both statements is as it should be.

REASON #2: Although we didn’t know it at the time, this was the last play that Willie Taggart would ever call at USF, and it’s only fitting that it was one of the best of the season. It was a beautiful summation of everything we loved about the latter half of the Taggart era: bold, decisive, brash, and flawlessly executed. There will be dozens of USF teams that are better than the 2016 edition — this year’s squad may be one of them — but none will ever match the incredible, jaw-dropping athleticism and attitude of Willie Taggart’s final offense in Tampa. Like Taggart and like Frost, we too will always remember this touchdown, and the mastermind behind it who brought the Bulls back to the national spotlight.

Why was this play not the best?

Because at the end of the day, it didn’t mean much on the scoreboard. In a season where USF played a handful of tight games with thrilling, down-to-the-wire finishes, the UCF game turned out to be one of the undercards. And, of course, this wasn’t even the most exciting play of the game. Stay tuned.