TAMPA — USF's defense had been there before, staked to fourth-quarter leads against Pittsburgh and Louisville, only to see an offense march down the field and take away victories.
Not this time. The Bulls forced a key fumble with 5:38 to play and got one last stop, sealing a 17-13 win Sunday night against Connecticut and ending a three-game losing streak in the final home game for 21 seniors at Raymond James Stadium.
"They finally did what they're supposed to do, that's the bottom line," said defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, whose unit held the nation's leading rusher, Donald Brown, to 96 yards on 28 carries, 57 fewer than his season average.
The Bulls got just 247 yards of total offense but came up with key plays, like a 25-yard touchdown run from Jamar Taylor in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Matt Grothe, playing on a badly sprained ankle, twice ran for third-down conversions in the final five minutes, helping close out the win.
"It's the best I've seen our defense play all year," Grothe said. "We shut down probably the best running back in the nation."
Brown came in averaging 153 yards, but USF kept him in check, getting 16 tackles from linebacker Tyrone McKenzie and 12 from linebacker Kion Wilson.
"For the first time all season, we finished strong," said McKen-zie, who had three tackles for loss. "He's a great running back, and to stop him like that, our defensive front seven knew what we had to do, to stop the run."
After a 5-0 start, the Bulls (7-4, 2-4 Big East) had one win since September, hadn't had so much as a lead in 29 days, but this victory assures them of a bowl appearance. A win Dec. 6 against West Virginia could put them in contention for the Gator Bowl, but barring that, USF is likely set for the St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 20.
"We didn't realize how long it's been. It's been like a month? The feeling feels great," safety Carlton Williams said.
After Taylor's touchdown, UConn (7-4, 3-3) marched to the USF 16, but cornerback Jerome Murphy upended Brown for a 2-yard loss and the Huskies settled for a field goal. The key stop came on UConn's next drive as it again drove into Bulls territory, facing fourth and 3 on the 35.
Quarterback Tyler Lorenzen scrambled for a first down but fumbled just before his knee touched the ground as he was tackled by Murphy. Cornerback Quenton Washington recovered the loose ball for USF. The fumble was reviewed but upheld, and the Huskies never got closer than their own 20 again.
The Bulls jumped out to a 7-0 lead, sparked by a 64-yard kickoff return by Dontavia Bogan. Grothe converted a third down with a 22-yard pass to Taurus Johnson, setting up Ben Williams' 2-yard touchdown run.
UConn tied it at 10 in the third quarter with a trick play, as Brown took the handoff and pitched to fullback Jordan Todman for what looked to be a reverse. Todman pitched back to Lorenzen, who found receiver Ellis Gaulden open for a 46-yard touchdown.
The Bulls came in having dropped four of five, a hard fall from a 5-0 start that had them ranked as high as No. 10. Last week's 49-16 loss to Rutgers was the most lopsided home loss in the program's 12-year history.
The game drew a crowd generously announced at 42,422, the smallest in more than a year, since 37,753 against North Carolina in September 2007.
"It's nice to get a little bit healthy," coach Jim Leavitt said. "It was a good win. I thought the guys did a good job. I thought (the defense) was relentless."