TAMPA — There were enough wild ups and downs to match USF's promising, frustrating season in a single afternoon, but in the end, there was enough B.J. Daniels for Bulls fans to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Daniels threw for 304 yards and rushed for 141, both personal bests, and the Bulls escaped with a 34-22 victory against Louisville, a win that assures USF of playing in a bowl game for a fifth consecutive year.
"You know, we got a win," said Bulls coach Jim Leavitt, unhappy with his team's uneven performance before a Raymond James Stadium crowd announced at 49,388. "I guess it's always good to win a game. I mean that. I don't mean that in a bad way. I'm thinking about some mistakes we've got to correct and get better."
Still, the Bulls (7-3, 3-3) have more Big East wins than last season, and some much-needed momentum on offense heading into a final home game against Miami on Saturday.
A week after the Bulls were held to 159 yards in a 31-0 loss at Rutgers, they piled up 160 yards on their first two drives, finishing with 538.
Daniels, who ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, became the first Big East player to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 in the same game.
"It's big for our morale and our team confidence," Daniels said. "It was really important for us to get back on a winning track, click on all cylinders and come out with a win."
The Bulls jumped to a 14-0 lead, with Daniels engineering two 80-yard touchdown drives, the first ending on a pass to Dontavia Bogan, the second on a 2-yard run by Mo Plancher after Daniels converted a fourth and 1.
"They knew we didn't play very well last week," offensive coordinator Mike Canales said. "I was embarrassed by the way we played, but we showed we can rebound, that we have the ability to do that. Our kids executed, and I'm just so proud of them."
But Louisville (4-7, 1-5) stormed back in the second quarter, first with a field goal, then a touchdown to receiver Scott Long, then a 16-14 lead after a 60-yard punt return by Trent Guy.
USF got the lead back on a field goal just before halftime, but the Bulls so needed an emotional boost that Leavitt cut a bloody gash in the bridge of his nose giving a motivational headbutt to a player's helmet (see separate story).
The sacrifice worked, as USF opened the second half with another 80-yard touchdown drive, with Daniels converting two third downs on passes to receiver A.J. Love, then scoring on a 20-yard scramble.
USF led 27-16 late in the third, but went for it on fourth and 2 from the Louisville 24 and missed, and Louisville went 77 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth, cutting the lead to 27-22.
The Cardinals had one chance for a go-ahead touchdown, but USF's defense didn't allow them past midfield.
Daniels capped a 75-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, two plays after he hit tight end Ben Busbee for a crucial 28-yard gain.
Bouncing back from a stretch of three losses in four games, the win takes some pressure off USF heading into a much-anticipated home game against Miami, another shot to beat a major in-state opponent.
"We've got a big one coming up this week," said safety Nate Allen, who had his fourth interception for USF's only takeaway. "It should be fun this week."
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.