TAMPA — USF's lead was again a precarious one, the opponent was again driving across midfield in the fourth quarter, and four-year starting quarterback B.J. Daniels had just been carted off the field with what would turn out to be a season-ending injury.
If there ever was a time for USF to get its long-awaited first interception of the season, it was exactly then. When defensive end Tevin Mims pressured UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer, his high, deep pass was picked off by senior safety Jon Lejiste, who drew huge cheers from the Raymond James Stadium crowd.
And when UConn was driving for a potential tying touchdown in the final minute, getting clear to the USF 22-yard line, the Bulls got a second interception as defensive tackle Elkino Watson caught a deflected pass with 50 seconds left, preserving a hard-fought 13-6 victory for the Bulls to end a six-game losing streak.
"The one that was really nice was the one to seal the game," coach Skip Holtz said. "I couldn't have written a better script than to see the defense come in and hold Connecticut to six points and be able to secure the win at the end of the game and get the turnover to get the W."
While the Bulls got a huge positive fans have been waiting for, the early and sudden goodbye to Daniels — the face of USF football for four years, with more than 10,000 yards of total offense — made it bittersweet.
"I've been here for a year and a half, preparing every single day for this moment," said redshirt freshman Matt Floyd, who steps in as starter. "It's really unfortunate that it happened, but we'll continue moving forward and everybody's going to step up."
USF (3-6, 1-4 Big East) got a 5-yard touchdown run from Daniels for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. The Bulls defense had good pressure on Whitmer, holding the Huskies to a field goal just before halftime. UConn (3-6, 0-4) got another field goal late in the third quarter to cut the Bulls' lead to 7-6.
The Bulls have struggled to get takeaways this season, with five entering the game, but USF took the ball away on UConn's final three drives. True freshman linebacker Tashon Whitehurst, making his first career start, recovered a UConn fumble to set up the first of two field goals by Maikon Bonani, who added a career-long 50-yarder after Lejiste's interception.
Still, UConn got the ball at its 25 with 4:26 left and drove 53 yards to threaten USF with another late collapse. At the USF 22 with a minute left, Whitmer's pass was deflected by defensive tackle Todd Chandler and landed in the arms of Watson, who was mobbed by teammates.
"It felt great, everybody cheering," Watson said. "I'm not going to say the defense lost the last couple of games, but we couldn't close out how we wanted to. To finally close how we wanted to, it felt pretty good. It's been a long time since we got one. Now we're going to try to keep it rolling, head to a bowl game."
The Bulls hadn't won since Sept. 8 at Nevada, the longest drought in the program's 16-year history. Three losses came on late drives by opponents to take back the lead in the final two minutes, but USF's defense didn't let that happen Saturday.
USF played without several key seniors lost to injury in last week's loss to Syracuse; top rusher Lindsey Lamar, starting tight end Evan Landi, starting right guard Danous Estenor and receiver Derrick Hopkins were all sidelined. Then in the final quarter, the Bulls lost Daniels, who threw for 199 yards and rushed for 23 and a touchdown.
In two weeks, the Bulls will turn to Floyd at quarterback, and Holtz said he has confidence from the way so many young Bulls have flourished when pressed into starting roles by injuries in recent weeks.
"I guess we'll see," Holtz said of his new quarterback. "With all the young players stepping on the field and playing, it's like the first time you throw your car keys to your 16-year-old. You hold your breath. You've taught them well, driven with them, you've done everything you can. You have to go out there and let them play. … I'm anxious to see what he can do."