This is the fourth 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:
The general consensus on college football bowl games isn’t much of a consensus at all. For many fans, the chance to earn some hardware at the end of the season, even if it’s the Krusty Krab Memorial Bowl Trophy, is a wonderful opportunity that doesn’t come around every day, and a way for the have-nots of college football to hang some banners. For others, most bowls outside of the top-tier bunch are just fun, season-ending exhibitions, the result of which does little to enhance or taint the product that came before it. These are both perfectly legitimate mindsets.
I tend to fall into the latter camp, which is why it was so satisfying to see USF, under interim coach T.J. Weist, go absolutely balls-to-the-wall against South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl. In the span of three quarters, the Bulls had done the following:
- Gone for it on 4th down from the South Carolina 47 on their first drive of the game.
- Gone for a two-point conversion after their first touchdown, with an Oregon-esque faux-extra point formation that resulted in Brett Kean finding Mitchell Wilcox in the end zone.
- Thrown a 37-yard touchdown pass on 4th down with seven seconds remaining in the half.
- Attempted an onside kick up 18 points in the third quarter.
Weist knew that USF had absolutely nothing to lose (and perhaps that he had nothing to lose either, with Charlie Strong already watching from the sideline), and thus he was calling a totally bonkers game that would’ve made Willie Taggart blush. Some decisions were smart, others less so, but the whole thing was incredibly fun to watch, and everything you’d want from a mid-tier bowl game under an interim coach.
Then... he just kind of stopped.
Up 18 points in the waning moments of the third quarter, Weist called 15 runs to just five passes, effectively stalling the USF offense while South Carolina made a wild fourth-quarter charge to knot the game at 39 points apiece. Perhaps most egregious was the decision to run out the clock once USF got the ball back with a tie game, the AAC Offensive Player of the Year under center, and a minute left on the clock. It reeked of white-flag, Holtzian play-calling, and going into overtime with a sputtering offense up against the red-hot Gamecocks didn’t really feel like a winning strategy.
Enter Quinton Flowers.
Let’s break it down:
I would like to hang this play in a museum and title it “We Have Quinton Flowers and You Don’t.” Despite all of T.J. Weist’s efforts to hamstring his star quarterback down the stretch (I don’t mean to pick on Weist here, who really did a fantastic job in an unenviable position for much of this game), Flowers refused to be hamstrung on this play, and pretty much singlehandedly rescued the Bulls.
The Bulls line up with three wide receivers split right and Elkanah Dillon in the backfield. Flowers winds up having three options on the right side of the field on this play— Tyre McCants in the flat, Marquez Valdes-Scantling past the first down marker, and Dillon in the end zone. Valdes-Scantling and Dillon have each attracted a pair of defenders; McCants has attracted literally zero. At this point in the play, I was basically shouting “THROW IT TO TYRE” as loud as my lungs could muster. Quinton’s got his eyes downfield, though.
Now the protection is breaking down a little bit. Marlon Mack is pass blocking here and can’t quite get a body on his man, who is about to rush through the middle and put some heat on Flowers, who rolls right.
McCants is still open for a safe, easy first down. Flowers is rolling right towards him. He’s got to make this throw, right?
Wrong. Quinton has had enough of playing it safe, and wants to put this ball in the end zone. After a quarter-and-a-half of keeping it close to the vest, Q is about to roll the dice in a big way.
Tyre McCants, meanwhile, is very lonely.
Quinton spots Elkanah Dillon, who has drifted from the backfield into the end zone, behind a pair of defenders who have been sucked inwards by Rodney Adams and Valdes-Scantling underneath. It’s not a very large window. In fact, it’s a very, very small window, particularly when compared to the large, gaping window to Flowers’ right, in which Tyre McCants is now enjoying a nice breakfast and composing the next great American novel.
Have you ever played as a goalkeeper in soccer? I often play goalkeeper when I play soccer with my friends, because my hands are important and I want to use them. My friends, who all think they are the second coming of Leo Messi, or something, enjoy playing a game called Attempt to Chip the Ball Into the Inches-Long Window Between Ryan’s Head and the Crossbar. It is a very inefficient game, because A) my friends are not the second coming of Leo Messi, and B) this shot is nearly impossible to make. You have to launch the ball with the perfect amount of weight that it doesn’t go directly at me for an easy save, but also that it descends perfectly into the goal, right under the crossbar. They have about a 1% success rate on this shot.
This is essentially the soccer version of what Quinton Flowers tries to do here. Dillon is a couple strides behind the defense, but thanks to that pesky end zone, Flowers can’t throw the ball behind him. And, of course, if he throws it even an inch too short, it’ll be an interception and likely win for South Carolina.
Quinton, of course, makes a flawless throw. It floats just a few inches over the outstretched arm of the nearest Gamecocks defensive back, and lands right in Dillon’s breadbasket. Boom. Game-winning touchdown.
Why was this play the best?
So many reasons. Even though I don’t assign much weight to bowl games, it certainly would’ve let a bad taste in the USF fanbase’s collective mouth (ew) if the final memories of the fantastic 2016 season were USF’s record-breaking offense sitting on the ball and allowing for a massive South Carolina comeback.
It’s easy to look at this play and say that it was quintessential Quinton Flowers, but it’s really not. Flowers is able to operate at a high level as a quarterback without having anything close to a elite arm because his decision-making is largely pristine— an attribute that separates him from USF quarterbacks of the past with similar skill sets. Flowers rarely ever makes an incorrect or overly risky read; 99 times out of 100 on this play, he’ll dump the ball to McCants or take off running.
There’s something incredibly satisfying, then, about the fact that the last throw of Quinton Flowers’ season was not only a game-winning touchdown, but Q essentially taking a look at this game, yelling “HOLD MY BEER” and making an amazing, highlight-reel play for the touchdown. Most of the time it’s best to be smart with the ball— Quinton knows this better than most players. Other times, such as overtime in the Birmingham Bowl with an interim coach, it’s perfectly okay to drop everything resembling common intelligence and go for broke. When you’ve got a player like Quinton Flowers, going for broke can turn out pretty well.
There are a few other factors: this play wound up clinching USF’s first-ever season-ending national ranking, first ever season with 11 wins, and second-ever win over an SEC school. Not too shabby.
Why was this play not the best?
This is the first play we’ve covered on this countdown in which I could entertain an argument that it was the top play of USF’s season. But I’m not quite sold. First off, the Birmingham Bowl wasn’t over until Mike Love’s fourth-down sack on the next possession. Second off, as awesome as it was, this was just a bowl game, and a win or loss would not have majorly altered the trajectory of USF’s season (see: USF’s loss to Western Kentucky in 2015). Finally, given all the amazing plays Quinton Flowers made this season, this one might not even crack the top three. Rest assured, we will be seeing more of Quinton as this countdown continues.