CINCINNATI — USF offensive coordinator Todd Fitch was smiling Friday night, of course because the Bulls had pulled off a 38-30 upset of Cincinnati, but as much because his offense crisply executed a game plan designed to confront so many of the problems in USF's two previous losses.
"The key was two things: We didn't turn it over … and I thought (quarterback) B.J. (Daniels) had great command of the game, made pretty good decisions. We made some plays … That's what we've been missing. It was good to see those guys step up and make those plays."
USF (4-3, 1-2 Big East) was outgained 590-378, but the Bulls prevailed in part because of more efficient play in the red zone. USF only settled for a field goal once in four trips inside the 20, and stiffened against Cincinnati (3-4, 1-1), allowing just two touchdowns out of six red-zone trips.
"A lot of guys stepping up, and a lot of hard work that showed up," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "This didn't happen overnight. I'm really proud of the resolve they'd had, the focus they've had, the competitive nature they've had. A lot of things have been disappointing, but you wouldn't know it from them."
Third down, another thorn for USF's offense, was another turnaround — after going 1-for-11 against West Virginia, the Bulls went 7-for-12, thanks again to sharper passing from Daniels.
The Bulls also set up third and short many times; of their seven conversions, five came when they needed 4 yards or fewer to convert against Cincinnati, which started eight sophomores on defense, the youngest unit among BCS conference teams.
"We didn't want to be in third and long and did a good job of staying ahead of the chains on early downs," Fitch said. "They were good matchups, and our kids executed. As I said before, we had guys open on third down in previous games and just didn't execute the call. (Friday) they did what they were coached to do."
The red zone and third-down success came together on Daniels' two short touchdown runs, both on third and goal. The difference between those two touchdowns and the field goals that could have come instead provided the eight-point margin of victory.
Want big plays? In the first five games against I-A opponents this season, the Bulls had four passing plays of 30 yards or more. Daniels had four of those Friday, including USF's two longest of the season.
"Really pleased for him. You get way too much credit when you're a quarterback and way too much blame," Fitch said. "It's been hard for him. It's good to see him have success."
USF gave up a school-record 590 yards, including a record 512 through the air, but the Bulls made stops in the red zone that Cincinnati didn't.
"Our kids persevered. They left everything on the field, and that's what I'm most proud of," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "Whether we gave up a thousand yards or 2 yards, it's about the win. … I can't say enough about our offense. They showed up and excelled."
And as the Bearcats drove for a tying score, the Bulls came up with a stop in the final minute to turn around a rough start to Big East play. Up next is Rutgers, Nov. 3 at Raymond James Stadium.
"That was totally euphoric for all of us," Snyder said. "It was amazing to see that and see our kids starting to bond."