Big Four? USF moves closer with Miami win
MIAMI -- If the Bulls had lacked a signature victory to leave a lasting mark on Skip Holtz's first season, they found it Saturday afternoon against the Hurricanes in dramatic fashion.
USF rallied from yet another fourth-quarter deficit, with the defense stepping up late again and true freshman walk-on quarterback Bobby Eveld leading the Bulls to a wild 23-20 overtime victory over Miami at Sun Life Stadium.
"It's a wonderful feeling. This is a milestone for this program," said senior linebacker Sabbath Joseph, savoring a win in his hometown. "I'm so tired of hearing about South Florida being a mediocre school that can't play with the Big Three of Florida, Florida State and Miami. If you want to be labeled the Big Four, you've got to beat them. That's exactly what we came here to do."
And as was the case in Tallahassee last season, the Bulls sent a message with their win. USF (7-4, 3-3 in Big East) led 10-0 in the third quarter, only to see Miami rattle off 17 straight points, until Eveld finished an 81-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown with 2:00 remaining.
Miami (7-5, 5-3 in ACC) had gotten in field goal range in the closing seconds, but safety Jerrell Young, a Gibbs graduate, intercepted his pass with five seconds remaining. Then the defense held Miami to a field goal in overtime, and two backups -- running back Demetris Murray and former walk-on receiver Joel Miller -- made plays in overtime to set up Murray's 1-yard game-winner.
The Bulls had to wait a moment to celebrate as the final play was reviewed, but the call -- and USF's higher status in the state hierarchy -- was upheld, allowing a corner of green to celebrate a hard-fought win in what could be coach Randy Shannon's final game at Miami.
"We grew up a little bit today as a program," Holtz said. "This is the level that we aspire to be at. This is what we want to do. We have talked about the "Big Three" in the state ... they have all won conference championships, they have all won national championships. This is the level we want to compete at."
In the past month, USF has forged an identity as grinding out close wins -- they've had three wins of three points or less in November, as many as they've totaled in the previous five seasons since joining the Big East in 2005. A month ago, they'd gone three years without a fourth-quarter comeback, and now they've rallied from final-period deficits in their last three wins.
"I'm a senior. I've got a few games left. I didn't want to have any regrets after this game. I had to get open and make a big play," said receiver Dontavia Bogan, who made catches of 27 and 21 yards on the final drive of regulation.
The game opened with 12 consecutive punts, then USF's defense held as Miami had three shots from the 1-yard line. On the last play, USF's Kayvon Webster stood up 'Canes running back Damien Berry, and David Bedford stripped him to force a fumble into the end zone for a touchdback. Starting quarterback B.J. Daniels led the Bulls to a late field goal and 3-0 halftime lead, but he aggravated a bruised quad, and Holtz turned to Eveld, a Jesuit graduate who had thrown just four passes since September.
A promising first drive ended with a fumble at the Miami 12 by Mo Plancher, who rushed for 103 yards, but four plays later, Miami's Stephen Morris was intercepted by USF linebacker Jacquian Williams to set the Bulls up at the Miami 18. That led to Murray's 8-yard touchdown, and a 10-0 lead.
With veteran Jacory Harris taking over at quarterback, Miami scored 17 points on their next three possessions, while USF punted on four straight drives. Trailing by seven with 4:56 to play, USF went 81 yards, with Eveld finishing the tying drive with a keeper. Young's interception came when Miami was already at the USF 32, in position for what looked to be a game-winning kick.
"There's isn't a bigger play in the game ... that would have been heartbreaking if they got close enough to put it away in regulation," Bedford said. "It gave us a chance. We did what we did up at Louisville. We got it done. I'm just in awe right now."
Murray's clinching touchdown improved the Bulls to 9-0 all-time in overtime, but he said it felt best for the seniors to have one more memory to take with them after this season. USF closes out the regular season Saturday as spoilers at home against Connecticut, which can win the Big East with a win.
"It felt great to let the seniors out with a bang down here in Miami," he said. "You hear about the Big Three all the time and everybody looks down on South Florida. All we try to do is come in and win and show people this is a big program and we can compete with anyone."