RENO, Nev. — There were ridiculously improbable odds. It was hapless, then hopeless, and there was this unbelievable cool and calm as everything seemed to crash down around them. Just when you thought it was over, USF came up with a chaotic, crazy final three minutes you wouldn't believe if it were scripted.
This wasn't a football game, it was a casino heist movie. Call it Holtz's 11.
Down 11 points and on its 16-yard line with four minutes to play, USF somehow rallied for a jackpot comeback, with B.J. Daniels throwing two 50-plus-yard touchdowns in the final 2:37 and USF escaping Nevada with a wild 32-31 thriller of a victory. The winning score came on Daniels' 56-yard throw with 38 seconds left to sophomore Andre Davis, who broke the school's top receiving records.
For a team that lost three games on the final play last year and another with 12 seconds left, it was the opposite of their old identity.
"Last year, we got in the habit of playing close games," coach Skip Holtz said after handing Nevada its second loss in its past 19 home games. "Hopefully this year, we can get in the habit of winning them like we did today."
The hero was Daniels, who engineered touchdown drives from his 20-yard line, then from his 8, in the final five minutes, first with a 52-yard score to Chris Dunkley, then the 56-yarder to Davis, a former Jefferson High star who finished with 12 catches for 191 yards. USF had two pass plays of 50 yards or longer all of last season; with a 51-yard score by Davis in the first quarter, it had three Saturday.
"You could see today as a testament to a new football team, us being together on the road, sticking together, working hard and coming out with a win," said Daniels, who threw for 227 yards in the fourth quarter alone, finishing 22-of-40 for 363.
It was a much different finish than one might have expected from the way it began. USF started horribly, allowing Nevada to drive for touchdowns on its first three possessions to take a 21-6 lead with 208 yards of offense in the first 12 minutes. The defense found a way to adjust and clamp down, and the Bulls trailed 21-13 at halftime, then got within a point on the opening drive of the third quarter, scoring on Lindsey Lamar's 35-yard run.
But then the Bulls stumbled again — four straight punts on offense, and Nevada clicked again, scoring on the final play of the third quarter for a 28-20. A field goal with 8:16 left put the Wolf Pack ahead two scores, and that margin still held when USF got the ball with 4:31 to play.
"A lot of people probably turned their TV off when they saw 31-20, but everybody on our sideline was positive," receiver Terrence Mitchell said. "It's just a good feeling to see everybody come together."
That's when Daniels took over — three passes to Davis, setting up the 52-yard touchdown to Dunkley, a transfer from Florida, with 2:37 left. An onsides kick failed, but USF's defense held on third and 2, forcing Nevada to punt. Even then, the Bulls started on their 8 with 1:38 to play and Daniels converted a third-and-10 play with a 23-yard pass to Deonte Welch.
From their 44, the Bulls saw Daniels throw a 56-yard score to Davis, who gave the Bulls a 32-31 lead with 38 seconds left. The conversion failed, and USF's defense got one last stop, with Nevada reaching the USF 43 but getting sacked on the final play as Tevin Mims forced a fumble that Julius Forte recovered to seal the win.
The Bulls don't have much time to celebrate, with a quick flight home and a huge home game Thursday against a longtime nemesis in Rutgers. For that five-hour flight home, USF could rewind and ask themselves how they pulled off such a finish.
"They don't get a whole lot better, scoring twice in the final (three) minutes of a football game, especially for a team that has had to overcome so much," Holtz said. "Last year, it killed me to sit in that locker room and see tears come out of young men's eyes. … I enjoyed watching them cry in this locker with tears of joy and jubilation, knowing how long we've waited for this day."