TAMPA — On the most surreal of senior days, USF's players hoisted the cumbersome "War on I-4" trophy like medieval Vikings brandishing their pillage late Saturday afternoon.
At one point, senior linebacker Nigel Harris detached the upper portion — shaped like an interstate sign — and began strumming it like a guitar. Then it was reattached and hoisted again, all 160 pounds of it.
It still was far easier lifting than the cross this program bore not terribly long ago.
Only three autumns after being emotionally pinned beneath the burden of a 2-10 season, USF is 10-2. The improbable transformation was capped by Saturday's 48-31 romp of rival UCF before an announced Raymond James Stadium crowd of 36,056. It's the first 10-win season in the Bulls' 20-year existence.
"It's almost unbelievable, to be honest," said senior safety Nate Godwin, among 11 seniors still around from the Bulls team that fell to Division I-AA McNeese State 53-21 in Game 1 of the Willie Taggart era on Aug. 31, 2013.
"I mean, to see the change, to be able to come out in a rivalry game, break the (season wins) record against UCF, it's a great feeling. I can't explain it."
Buoyed by another Marlon Mack rushing masterpiece and one of the defense's better efforts of the season, the Bulls (10-2, 7-1 American Athletic Conference) positioned themselves for an appealing bowl game (perhaps the Birmingham Bowl against an SEC foe) and a possible Associated Press ranking.
They also temporarily kept alive their flickering hopes of winning the East Division, but those were dashed later in the night after Temple routed East Carolina 37-10 to wrap up a berth in the AAC championship game.
"Those (seniors) could've easily transferred or went somewhere else, but they decided to stay here and see it through, and now they're reaping the benefit from it, and it's great," Taggart said. "Just really proud of these guys, man, and that was a good football team over there."
Leading Saturday's charge was Mack — who clinched his third straight 1,000-yard season — and zone-read extraordinaire Quinton Flowers, both of whom figure to remain at USF for their own senior day festivities in 2017.
Mack (20 carries, 155 yards) clinched the 1,000-yard rushing mark with a 43-yard scoring run in the first quarter. He trumped it with a 56-yarder in the second on which he broke no fewer than seven tackles. He has 1,137 this season,
"Just wow," Taggart said. "I was telling the guys on the headset, 'Guys, I don't think we realize how good these guys are, some of the stuff they do.' That was a big-time run."
By day's end, Mack's career rushing total had reached 3,559 yards, pushing him to No. 7 on Florida's all-time collegiate list. Mack said he hasn't decided whether he will stick around to pursue the state record held by UCF's Kevin Smith (4,679).
"It's a tough decision I've got to make at this age," Mack said. "I've just got to weigh the pros and cons into it and do what I want to do."
Not to be outdone, Flowers ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries to eclipse Mack's 1-year-old USF single-season rushing record. His 24-yard touchdown with 8:38 to play, one play after linebacker Auggie Sanchez's interception of a pass batted by Mike Love, gave the Bulls a 38-24 lead.
Flowers will enter USF's next game with 1,425 yards in '16.
Meantime, the maligned Bulls defense surrendered a six-play, 60-yard TD drive on the game's opening possession before tightening up — to a degree.
The Bulls forced three turnovers, including a 22-yard touchdown on a scoop-and-score by defensive end and Jefferson High alumnus Juwuan Brown. UCF (6-6, 4-4) managed only 64 rushing yards — the fewest of any Bulls foe this season — and failed to convert on 10 of its first 11 third-down tries.
"We drew a line in the sand and said, 'That's enough,' " Sanchez said.
"That's what we had to do to be successful, and that's what we did these last few ball games. The defense stepped up huge for us, and our offense has just been so potent this year. They've always had our backs, and it was just good to reciprocate."
The defense's only other glaring hiccup: a second-quarter gadget play where receiver Tristan Payton took an end-around handoff and hit Tre'Quan Smith for a 72-yard touchdown.
After UCF cut its deficit to 31-24 on a 3-yard Taj McGowan TD run late in the third quarter, the Bulls held the Knights to 36 total yards on their next four possessions, two of which ended with picks — by Sanchez and Godwin.
"We came a long ways, especially as a team," Harris said. "And Coach T said in the locker room when adversity hits, lately it doesn't stand a chance against us. We've grown a lot as a team, and I'm proud of my boys."