LOUISVILLE — Skip Holtz keeps hearing about things USF has never done, and his team just keeps going out and doing them.
His Bulls, who never had won in three previous trips to Louisville, checked another one off a growing never-before list, rallying to beat the Cardinals 24-21 in overtime Saturday afternoon. USF (6-3, 3-2) won its third in a row, thanks to a 37-yard field goal by Maikon Bonani after a huge defensive stop on fourth and inches at the 5-yard line.
"That's what I live for," said defensive tackle Terrell McClain, who stood up Louisville's center to help stop quarterback Justin Burke on the fourth-down stand. "I've been in that predicament many times, and I knew we'd come out on top. … This is a great opportunity. Usually, during November, this is when USF is going downhill. We keep winning, and good things are happening."
Now the Bulls are in unfamiliar territory — still in contention for the Big East lead in late November with Pittsburgh coming to Tampa this week. USF, better known for late-season collapses in recent years, is enjoying the novelty of momentum in the second half of the season.
"I can't be more proud of these kids in that locker room right now for buying in and believing every step of the way," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said.
As was the case in beating Cincinnati and Rutgers, Saturday wasn't a thing of beauty — the offense went 2-for-14 on third downs, the defense gave up a tying touchdown with 1:21 left and Bonani missed a potential winner at the end of regulation. All of that was absolved when the team came together in overtime and clinched bowl eligibility for the sixth year in a row.
"Statistically, this game wasn't pretty," said Holtz, whose program improved to 8-0 all-time in overtime. "Third down, we weren't very good. We kept having to punt the ball and we didn't punt it as well as we wanted. We didn't execute as an offense as well as we wanted. We let them run the ball too much, where (Bilal) Powell goes 31 carries for (140) yards. You can look at all those things as negatives. But they believed. They competed. They encouraged each other. It was a great team win."
Two weeks ago, the Bulls hadn't pulled off a fourth-quarter comeback in three years, but they've now done it twice in 10 days, after rallying for a one-point win against Rutgers. USF trailed 14-3 late in the first half before Lindsey Lamar took a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, his second this season. The Bulls got a 67-yard run by Demetris Murray (106 yards total) to set up a field goal, then took the lead early in the fourth quarter when quarterback B.J. Daniels found receiver Dontavia Bogan for a leaping 48-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone for a 21-14 lead after Daniels' 2-point conversion.
After Louisville drove for the tying score, USF had a chance to win in regulation, as tight end Andreas Shields took a short kick 41 yards to the Cardinals 40, but USF gained 5 yards on three plays and Bonani's 52-yarder missed left as time expired.
Facing fourth and inches in the first overtime, Louisville coach Charlie Strong could have settled for a field goal but went for it instead. USF got the stop, setting up three offensive plays to gain 5 yards and cue up Bonani's winner, his first since beating Kansas as a freshman in 2008.
"I'm just glad to help my team," Bonani said. "To see our defense rallying like they did, stopping them on fourth and inches. From then on, I was like 'I have to do my job' because I failed to do so at the end of regulation. I won't lie to you guys. I was really nervous."
After an 0-2 start in Big East play, the Bulls have won three straight, and a win Saturday against Pittsburgh would keep them at least within a half game of the league lead entering the Dec. 4 finale against Connecticut. The difference, according to Snyder, is the head coach who has brought a different attitude.
"Coach Skip Holtz," he said when asked how USF is doing things it hasn't done before. "I just heard it in the locker room from some of our players. They said, 'Coach Holtz is the real deal.' It's the plan that he's brought. He's got a bunch of coaches selling it and a bunch of players who are buying it."