TAMPA — If you needed proof that USF's offense lacked reliable players who can cleanly catch the ball, consider that with four minutes left Saturday night and the Bulls clinging to a 12-point lead against a Western Kentucky team that had lost 23 games in a row, coach Skip Holtz sent quarterback B.J. Daniels out on the field as part of his "hands team" against an onside kick.
Daniels fielded the kick and USF held on for a 24-12 victory against the lowly Hilltoppers, but the play stood out on a night when Daniels played a tiny role, throwing and running for just 87 yards of total offense. With three starting receivers out injured, the Bulls passed only 11 times, one more than the program's all-time low, and threw for 57 yards, a record low in 14 seasons.
Asked about having 44 carries vs. 11 passes, Holtz pointed to his last game, when turnovers doomed the Bulls in a loss at No. 8 Florida.
"I don't know if you watched the Florida game, but we were 5-of-20 with four interceptions," he said.
USF (2-1) got a career-best 115 yards rushing from sophomore Demetris Murray; he rotated with senior starter Mo Plancher, who had 79 yards and a touchdown. The Bulls, who led WKU (0-4) just 7-0 at halftime, took a shutout into the fourth quarter before an announced Raymond James Stadium crowd of 40,276, but ended up outgained by a team they were favored to beat by 27 points.
"We'll smile tonight. We'll scream tomorrow," said Holtz, whose team has another light opponent in Florida Atlantic (1-2) before opening Big East play Oct. 9 against Syracuse. "Fifty percent of the country would trade places with us today. I told the team there's no such thing as an ugly win."
It was certainly ugly early — the teams combined to miss five field goals in the first two quarters, and Daniels threw a costly interception late in the first half for the second game in a row.
Leading just 7-0, the Bulls marched 82 yards on the opening drive of the second half, with Plancher and Murray combining for 52 yards. A 67-yard punt return by freshman Terrence Mitchell — Holtz called it "electric" and "phenomenal" — set up another short touchdown for a 21-0 lead.
The defense carried a shutout into the fourth quarter, and the Bulls' kicking issues — two missed field goals — ended when sophomore Maikon Bonani took over for senior Eric Schwartz and made the final extra point and a 33-yard field goal in the fourth.
The offensive spark came from Murray, who rushed for 33 yards on his first drive, then bolted 39 yards down the USF sideline on the next drive, getting another 15 yards on a facemask penalty. That set up Plancher's 13-yard scamper for the game's first touchdown, setting the tone for the Murray-and-Mo combo working well all night.
"It's a great thing — I like the rhythm we have going on," Murray said. "Whenever one of us gets tired, we can roll in and keep it going. … We've got to get the passing game going, so that can open up the run and help it even more."
Daniels didn't have a pass or run longer than 17 yards, and for the second game in a row, he threw an interception late in the first half with USF holding a 7-0 lead. Against Florida, his pick set up the Gators' first touchdown, and on Saturday, Kiante Young's 32-yard return put WKU on the USF 12 with 40 seconds left in the half.
But safety Jon Lejiste forced a fumble on a blitz for an 11-yard loss, then a false start backed WKU up to the USF 29, leading to a missed field goal.
"Awesome to see. It's a step in the right direction. … We have to keep getting better. Obviously we're not where we need to be," Bulls defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "But I wasn't disappointed in our performance tonight, by no means."