CHARLOTTE, N.C. — 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 USF 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 a 31-26 win in the Meineke Car Care Bowl at Bank of America Stadium.
Among the Bulls' three previous bowl wins, none had come against a team from a BCS league (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10). It got shut out by N.C. State in Charlotte in 2005 and lost 56-24 to Oregon in El Paso, Texas, in 2007 and beat East Carolina (2006), Memphis (2008) and Northern Illinois (2009).
"It's a blessing," said Daniels, 20-of-27 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 (8-5) a scare late. Down 31-13 with two minutes left, it scored 13 points in 64 seconds, the rally thwarted only when a second onside kick was recovered a yard short of the 10 yards it must go.
USF's 31 points were the most allowed this season by Clemson, which came in with the nation's No. 9 scoring defense at 17.8 points per game and gave up its most points in a bowl since 2002. USF's offense had struggled all year on third downs. But it converted seven of its first nine and nine of its 14 overall.
Daniels played for the first time since aggravating his injured right quad Nov. 27 against Miami.
After missing his first three passes, including an interception that led to a 3-0 Clemson lead, he completed 14 passes in a row, a steady diet of quick screens and short passes that helped limit the Tigers' pass rush.
"The focus that he's had … one of the things that has made this team jell is the way this guy's handled a little bit of adversity," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "Every bit of credit he gets today has definitely been earned."
USF led 17-3 on Daniels' touchdowns to Demetris Murray and Dontavia Bogan. Murray's fumble with 1:20 left in the first half gave Clemson a boost. It converted on fourth and 7 with a 38-yard pass to the 2, and a touchdown cut the lead to 17-13 at halftime.
The Bulls opened the second half with a 13-play, 83-yard drive during which they converted three third downs. It culminated with a 2-yard touchdown run by sixth-year senior Mo Plancher, who was in his first season at USF when it first came to Charlotte.
Daniels' 8-yard run put USF up 31-13 with 13:58 left.
Meanwhile, the Bulls took away the Tigers' running game and got physical with quarterback Kyle Parker, who sustained broken ribs and didn't play in the second half. Defensive backs Quenton Washington and JaQuez Jenkins had their first career interceptions, returning them a combined 93 yards to the Clemson 10 and 5, respectively, and leading to 10 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 21/2 hours from the school's South Carolina campus.
The finish — backup Tajh Boyd threw two touchdowns with a successful onside kick in between — didn't take away from players' excitement of a third straight bowl victory and the offseason confidence that comes with it.
"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 … it's fitting to go out with a victory. And I'm proud of the way our team played."
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.