TAMPA — The sting of Saturday's last-minute loss to Connecticut in the Bulls' home finale was softened somewhat Sunday, as USF landed on its feet for bowl season, a New Year's Eve slot against Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte.
"As disappointing as it was (Saturday) night, to be as close as we were, to come back to tie the game up only to lose it on a great effort by (UConn kicker Dave Teggart) to make a 52-yard field goal which just ripped your heart out," coach Skip Holtz said, "to come back today and get the great news … is something we're really excited about, having the opportunity to represent the Big East and this great university. It's really lifted everybody's spirits in this program."
The Bulls (7-5, 3-4 in Big East) will play at noon on ESPN against Clemson (6-6), which has five losses by single digits, including an early-season overtime defeat at current No. 1 Auburn. The Tigers, who will be about 140 miles from home, should have a considerable crowd advantage, though it's also a homecoming of sorts for Holtz, who spent the previous five seasons four hours east at East Carolina.
"It's a great finish to my senior year, going back to North Carolina," said Bulls tight end Kevin Gidrey, who transferred to the Bulls after playing for Holtz at ECU. "It's a big-stage team, I've watched them a couple of times and they have a good program. It'll be a real good opportunity to finish off the year going 8-5 with a good win against Clemson."
Holtz has a history of success against the ACC, including USF's win Nov. 27 at Miami. At East Carolina, his teams beat five different ACC teams, and he knows Clemson well from his six years on his father Lou's staff at South Carolina from 1999-2004.
The Bulls will take four days off while players focus on final exams, then will begin practice this weekend — a big benefit of a bowl game is the 15 practices teams are allowed to help prepare for next season as well.
USF played its first bowl game in Charlotte in 2005, losing 14-0 to N.C. State. Sixth-year senior running back Mo Plancher, who redshirted that season but made the trip, has already told his teammates what to expect on Dec. 31.
"Hopefully it's a better outcome this year," said Plancher, who fondly remembers the NASCAR ride-along experience at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which the team will do again in Charlotte. "A lot of guys have asked me about the city. It's beautiful, great atmosphere. I think they'll enjoy it."
NOTES: USF is the only school in the nation to lose four games in which they allowed 20 points or fewer. … USF's announced home attendance — an average of 40,849 at seven games — dropped 22 percent from 2009, to the Bulls' lowest average since 2006. USF fell from third to fifth in the Big East attendance rankings, and the Bulls' change in attendance was the worst in the conference.