TAMPA — USF's overtime win at Miami last week was made more impressive by so many Bulls who made key plays down the stretch being backups pressed into duty by injuries.
Coach Skip Holtz has sought to cultivate depth since preseason camp in Vero Beach. As the Bulls finish their regular season at home tonight against Connecticut, the ability of second-stringers to play like first-teamers has been invaluable to them.
"A lot of guys really stepped up (against Miami)," Holtz said. "That's kind of been the battle cry of this football team all year.
"We keep talking about how important depth is to be a great football team. Late in the season, everybody's got injuries. … When somebody goes out, it's your turn. Somebody else has to step up."
Consider the Bulls' offense in overtime. Backup center Kevin McCaskill, playing for the first time in seven weeks, snapped to backup quarterback Bobby Eveld, who hadn't played in six weeks.
Eveld threw a 9-yard pass to Miami's 1-yard line that was caught by backup receiver Joel Miller, who had as many catches against the Hurricanes (four) as he had had all season.
And the winning touchdown was scored by No. 2 running back Demetris Murray, who got his second touchdown of the game after going more than a month without finding the end zone.
Moments earlier on defense, USF holding Miami to its seventh three-and-out was made possible by three unsung players:
Defensive end Ryne Giddins, who made his first career start after two players ahead of him were injured, got the tackle on first down. Curtis Weatherspoon, arguably the sixth linebacker, dropped a player for no gain on second down. Sabbath Joseph, who got his first start as a senior in his hometown, made his only tackle of the game on third down, catching receiver Leonard Hankerson in the open field to force a field-goal attempt.
"It was a good moment," said Weatherspoon, who has 19 tackles coming off the bench. "Anything to help the team, anything to help us get the win. Everybody sees what they need to put in to help the first team, the guys who have been here awhile, to give them that push."
USF's secondary was especially depleted in the second half. So backup safety Tyson Butler had three tackles, doubling his season total, and reserve cornerback George Baker had a career-high five tackles after totaling seven in the first 10 games.
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said his options were so limited by injuries that he was barely able to shift to situational alignments such as his nickel defense, with a fifth defensive back, or a look with three down linemen instead of four.
"I'm calling for our three-down package, our Penny package," Snyder said. "I'm going 'Penny! Penny! Penny!' And (defensive backs coach Rick Smith) goes, 'You can't go Penny.' What? We couldn't even get to Penny. The point is, kids kept stepping up, kept playing no matter who's in there."
Despite being limited by personnel, Snyder didn't have to scale back on an ambitious game plan. His second unit knew the plan well enough to stay with it, and it carried out the plan as well as he could have hoped.
"The thing I'm most proud of is they kept following the plan. They're executing what we're calling," Snyder said. "Maybe they're not getting as many reps in practice as those other guys, but I felt like I still had my whole plethora of calls.
"That's a credit to them paying attention in practice and in meetings. I didn't have to scale back any of it."
Even kicker Maikon Bonani, who is 13-for-16 on field-goal attempts this season, started the year as the backup, getting the nod only after senior Eric Schwartz connected on only one of his first five attempts.
Holtz routinely puts his top units against each other in practice, with the No. 1 offense against the No. 2 defense and vice versa in two-minute drills.
Each time one backup embraces a larger role, it provides motivation and confidence to another backup.
"With everybody stepping up, that just shows the depth we have, as well as how great we're coming along as a team, becoming that one unit," McCaskill, the backup center, said.
"When the two-group goes in and you see them making a block or a catch … whenever you see them doing well, it gets you excited, knowing they're growing up and everybody's progressing to be that No. 1."