TAMPA — For the second game in a row, USF's seniors faced the prospect of ending their careers without beating one of their Big East rivals.
But just as they did at Cincinnati on Oct. 22, the Bulls took down Rutgers 28-27 Wednesday night before an announced crowd of 39,465 at Raymond James Stadium.
"We always say in order to be a good football team, our seniors have to play the best football of their career," USF coach Skip Holtz said after the program's 100th win. "Mo Plancher did that. Jacquian Williams on defense did that. There were some upperclassmen that I just felt led the charge.
USF (5-3, 2-2 Big East) saw Plancher rush for a career-best 135 yards, the winning score with 9:33 left in the game coming when another senior, tackle Jake Sims, recovered his fumble in the end zone.
And when USF's defense needed a stop with Rutgers (4-4, 1-2) in Bulls territory on fourth down, Williams was the linebacker who blitzed and sacked Chas Dodd with 3:47 left.
"I started realizing what I'm playing for," said Williams, a Riverview High graduate who had a game-high 11 tackles. "I'm playing for (fellow seniors) Sampson (Genus), Skinny (Raymond), Sabbath (Joseph), Mo. I'm playing for them. I get teared up thinking about those guys."
Three weeks ago, USF was 0-2 in the Big East, having failed to score an offensive touchdown in the losses. They have not only bounced back but done so against two teams who had beaten them four years in a row.
"This is a special group of seniors, a group I will be endeared to for a long time just because of the attitude they've had," Holtz said. "It would have been easy to throw in the towel at 0-2, but they've rallied back."
The Bulls got two touchdowns on third and goal from quarterback B.J. Daniels, and they also got considerable luck.
Sims' wasn't the first fumble recovery deep in Rutgers territory. Receiver Evan Landi landed on another Plancher fumble on the 7, and USF went on to score. A muffed punt in the fourth quarter was pounced on by Bulls corner Kayvon Webster.
"I guess you could say luck was on our side. We got a few breaks, but it was very hard-earned," Genus said.
USF's defense, which held Rutgers to 238 total yards, allowed just 96 yards in the second half, saving its biggest stops for the end. USF's offense moved the chains until 36 seconds remained, and Rutgers' last drive ended at its 36.
USF's defense took the momentum late in the third quarter, when linebacker DeDe Lattimore had a sack then a tackle for loss deep in Rutgers territory. That backed the Knights up to third and 21 from their 4. On the next play, defensive tackle Keith McCaskill tackled running back Kordell Young in the end zone for a safety, cutting the lead to 24-22.
On the ensuing drive, Daniels was intercepted by Justin Francis — the game's first turnover — to set Rutgers up on the USF 42. The defense held the Scarlet Knights to a 30-yard field goal that made it 27-22 — still a one-possession game — with 12:00 and setting up Sims' winning score.
Wednesday was the Bulls' 100th win, but it was just the fifth one-point win in USF history and the first since Florida International in 2006. That's something else the Bulls' seniors hadn't accomplished before Wednesday's game.
"We're not going to give up, no matter what," Daniels said.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.