Daniels returns, leads Bulls past Clemson
CHARLOTTE -- B.J. Daniels had endured his own struggles, his doubters and even injuries, and it wasn't until the last minute Friday that he learned he would have the chance to lead the Bulls against Clemson.
The sophomore, playing for the first time in 34 days, responded with some of his best football, throwing two touchdowns and running for a third to earn MVP honors in leading USF to its most impressive bowl win ever, a 31-26 victory. The Bulls had never beaten a bowl opponent from a BCS conference, getting shut out by N.C. State in Charlotte in 2005 and losing 56-24 to Oregon in El Paso in 2007.
"It's a blessing," said Daniels, who completed 20 of 27 passes for 189 yards. "These coaches have really put a lot of confidence in me, have helped me every step of the way. It means a lot to finish the season like this."
Clemson (6-7) gave the Bulls a scare late -- down 31-13 with two minutes left, the Tigers scored 13 points in a span of 64 seconds, their rally thwarted only when a second onsides kick was recovered a yard short of the 10 yards it must go, resulting in an illegal touch penalty that allowed the Bulls to run out the clock.
USF's 31 points were the most allowed this season by Clemson, which came in with the nation's No. 9 scoring defense and gave up its most points in any bowl since 2002. USF's offense had struggled all year on third downs, and the Bulls executed best in those key situations, converting 7 of their first 9 third downs to keep drives moving down the field.
After missing his first three passes, including an interception that led to a 3-0 Clemson lead, Daniels completed 14 passes in a row, a steady diet of quick screens and short passes that helped limit a tough Tigers pass rush.
"The focus that he's had ... one of the things that's has made this team jell is the way this guy's handled a little bit of adversity," coach Skip Holtz said. "Every bit of credit he gets today has definitely been earned. I'm proud of him."
USF led 17-3 after Daniels threw touchdown passes to Demetris Murray and Dontavia Bogan, but Murray's fumble with 1:20 left gave Clemson a huge boost. The Tigers converted a fourth-down gamble with a 38-yard pass to the 2, and their touchdown cut the lead to 17-13 at halftime.
The Bulls opened the second half with a 13-play, 83-yard drive in which they converted three third downs, culminating with a 2-yard touchdown run by sixth-year senior running back Mo Plancher, who was in his first year at USF when the Bulls came to Charlotte in 2005.
USF's defense trumped Clemson's, taking away the Tigers' running game and getting physical with quarterback Kyle Parker, who left the game with broken ribs and didn't play in the second half. Defensive backs Quenton Washington and JaQuez Jenkins each had their first career interceptions, returning them a combined 93 yards to Clemson's 10 and 5-yard lines, leading to 10 USF points. In 11 regular-season games against I-A opponents this season, the Bulls had totaled 90 yards on interception returns.
Friday felt like a road game, with a small corner of green in an otherwise orange Clemson crowd, just two and a half hours from the school's South Carolina campus. The frightening finish -- backup quarterback Tajh Boyd threw two touchdown passes with a successful onsides kick between them -- didn't take away from players' excitement in the Bulls' third straight bowl victory and the offseason confidence that comes with that.
"It just seems right," senior cornerback Mistral Raymond said. "After you work so hard throughout your career, and you care about the program so much. You know it may or may not be the last time you put on this helmet. It's fitting to go out with a victory, and I'm proud of the way our team played."