Surging Bulls want more than a bowl
There's a broader perspective at play among the sole occupant of second place in the American Athletic Conference's East division, wider than the gaze of even its most idealistic fans.
USF's big picture stretches beyond Tropicana Field or Miami. The Bulls don't merely want a bowl game, they want a title game.
"We can either talk about one win, or we can talk about three more wins for a really big goal," Coach Willie Taggart said in the wake of Saturday's 22-17 triumph at East Carolina, putting USF (5-4, 3-2 AAC) on the cusp of bowl eligibility for the first time in a half-decade.
"That's the one we're going after. We want to win this conference championship. That's what our guys set out from the beginning."
Following their fourth victory in five games -- on a wet, windy Carolina evening -- who's to doubt their wherewithal? On a night in which all six of their penalties seemed critical and their lone turnover was a fumble inside their own 10, the Bulls found a way.
"They could've easily quit on the road in a hostile environment," Taggart said. "Momentum change, they could've easily given in. But they didn't, they stuck together and made the plays when they needed to be made."
Not to mention the adjustments.
Maligned only five weeks ago for seemingly failing to improvise on the fly (see 24-17 loss to Memphis), the Bulls did so Saturday, spotting ECU's defensive tendencies and exploiting them at critical junctures.
The most glaring example occurred on the game-winner, a 67-yard touchdown pass from Quinton Flowers to Rodney Adams with 4:40 remaining. Noticing the Pirates "kept coming up every time we ran bubbles (screens)," Flowers said he sent Adams on a go route one play after finding him near the Bulls sideline for a 16-yard gain.
"They just switched routes," Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said. "Our discipline lost right there."
A similar scenario prevailed on the Bulls' first TD, when Flowers (12-for-23, 200 yards) found senior tight end Sean Price isolated in the right flat for a 16-yard TD.
"Actually in the huddle, (Flowers) told me the play was coming," said Price, who now owns USF records for career catches (71) and receiving yards (816) by a tighte end. "He was like, 'Just be ready for it. Just watch the safety take that post, you're gonna be wide open.'"
Now, suddenly, more daylight looms.
"Man, it just feels great," said stinger Nigel Harris, who finished with 10 tackles and half a sack. "It makes me more hungry to see what it's like to not only go to the bowl game, but to play for that AAC championship game."
If USF can win its final three, starting with Saturday's 7 p.m. home game against Temple (8-1, 5-0), the Bulls can clinch the East, but only if the Owls stumble somewhere else down the stretch. A week after facing the Bulls, Temple hosts Memphis.
"I tell you what's great, this time of year our guys playing for something, something that's meaningful," Taggart said. "We get to come back home and do that and we expect a big-time crowd because we need them to help us."