This is the fifth 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 USF fanbase was in a really rough place after the Bulls’ loss to Temple. In one fell swoop, the Bulls had likely lost a New Year’s Bowl bid, a conference title, and a division title, all in the span of just 60 minutes of game time. It was a gut punch the likes of which we hadn’t felt in a while, one that felt strangely reminiscent of a certain awful football game back in 2007.
Pair the absolute devastation of seeing your dreams burst into flames with a team coming into town that excelled at running the ball better than pretty much any other team in the nation— a team seemingly genetically engineered in a lab to be 2016 USF’s kryptonite—and you could understand why USF fans were a rather glum bunch before the next week’s game against Navy. Add in the fact that Quinton Flowers had exited the Temple game in the fourth quarter with a nasty-looking hamstring injury and was questionable for much of the week, and I think a lot of Bulls fans would gladly have pressed the sim button on the rest of the season rather than live through the inevitable November downward spiral.
So uh, about that.
Some of the plays on this list were selected because they were so jaw-droppingly incredible, like Marlon Mack’s mega-juke against Cincinnati. But USF had so many amazing offensive plays in 2016 that instead of trying to sort through them all and nitpick exactly how amazing they were, I put a lot of emphasis on finding plays that really meant something to the season. Perhaps they were plays that decided a game, or were symbolic of a larger facet of the team, or changed the tide of the season. This play falls into the latter category. In one beautiful, sublime moment, Quinton Flowers yanked USF fans out of their collective haze and shattered every single fear about the rest of the season. Were the Bulls out of the title race? Perhaps. Were they going to get blown out by Navy? Probably not. Was Quinton Flowers affected at all by his hamstring injury? Not a chance.
Let’s break it down:
This play is a very simple draw for Flowers— Marcus Norman, USF’s right tackle here, pulls inside and serves as his lead blocker.
As a decoy, the Bulls line up in a formation that they often use for screens. It’s convincing: On the left side, USF’s favorite screen target, Rodney Adams, is lined up in a triangle with the Bulls’ two best downfield blockers, Mitchell Wilcox and Tyre McCants. On the other side, Marlon Mack is lined up behind Marquez Valdes-Scantling. If you’re a Navy defensive back, all sorts of alarm bells have to be going off in your head right now, and justifiably so. It’s not the cornerbacks’ job to protect against a draw on this play; they’ve got to make sure that if Mack or Adams gets the ball, a defender is there to meet them behind of the line up scrimmage.
The Bulls fake screen on both sides. As soon as Mack and Adams turn to face the quarterback, all the Navy corners do their jobs and take off towards the line. Of course, this also works quite well for USF, as it takes three Midshipmen completely out of the center of the field. As long as Flowers doesn’t get knocked off course by the defensive line, he only has eight guys on the field to worry about.
In theory, the best way to stop a play like this is to have a couple big defensive linemen get off their blocks and get Flowers into trouble in the backfield. They don’t even have to bring him down, just slow him up enough to change his course and give the defensive backs and linebackers enough time to creep back into the play.
Navy’s defensive line, uh, does not do that. This is a massive credit to the USF offensive line.
I don’t even need to mark up this picture, because that hole is so blissfully large and obvious. Apart from the pulling Norman, every single USF offensive lineman is executing a one-on-one block to perfection, and Flowers could probably pick up an easy 20 yards here even without his lead blocker.
This leaves only a couple ways for Navy to possibly stop this play. Let’s refer back to that second picture.
The most obvious culprits on this play are the Navy linebackers (circled above), who, as you can see, are caught flat-footed even as Flowers has already started accelerating towards the line. They are not in an ideal position to take on Quinton in full-speed-ahead mode, particularly not when Marcus Norman is leading the way. Since they had to respect the threat of the screens, they get caught being a step too slow to the play, and neither is able to come remotely close to catching Quinton, as we can see below.
But they’re not necessarily the reason that Q takes this play to the house. After all, Navy still has two deep safeties, and however slow they are in recognizing the draw, they should still have plenty of time to get an angle on the speedy QB. But check out Navy’s safety to the left side of the play (starred in the above picture)— he’s so concerned about the potential screen to Adams that he’s already started to creep into the play. Once Quinton hits the hole, he’s able to angle off the other safety by running... right where his counterpart used to be.
For being the last line of defense, he bites way too hard on the screen. As you can see above (he’s #6), by the time he’s actually started moving toward the play, Flowers has basically already passed him. No one on the Midshipmen defense is nearly as fast as Flowers is, and this play is over before Q even goes ten yards.
Why was this play the best?
As I mentioned earlier, it lifted a sort of fog off of USF’s season. The Bulls could easily have packed it in after their conference title hopes balloon was punctured by Temple, but they showed no signs of backing down, coming out firing against an awful matchup on paper in the Midshipmen. Flowers’ run was symbolic of the toughness of the 2016 Bulls that previous versions didn’t quite have. We’d seen some great Bulls teams fold in this sort of game so many times that we’d come to expect it; it was downright liberating to see Flowers and company flip the script.
Furthermore, it’s a wonderful example of the Gulf Coast offense at its best: spreading out the defense, getting your playmakers in space, and using the defenses’ expectations against them. Flowers’ remarkable athleticism aside, this play wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if the Bulls hadn’t been driving defenses crazy with screens to Adams and Mack all season long. From 2015 onward, one of Taggart’s favorite tricks was to find a play that worked, run it ad nauseam, and then find the total opposite side of the coin and start introducing that play to the repertoire. It worked to perfection here.
And, of course, it confirmed that Quinton Flowers was okay, which was by far the most important thing.
Why was this play not the best?
It’s a wonderful moment in the season, but it doesn’t stack up to the best plays on this list in terms of sheer insanity, or in its direct effect on the game. USF, of course, went on to beat Navy pretty comfortably. There were a handful of plays in 2016 that decided games, or involved unfathomable individual efforts. This play is up there, but it’s not one of them.