TAMPA — The magic number, as it has been since USF football's painful midseason swoon, is six.
Six wins, one more than USF has entering tonight's regular-season finale against No. 22 West Virginia, are what the Bulls (5-6, 1-5 Big East) need to continue a six-year bowl streak that is now in jeopardy.
"The elephant in the room is that we've got to win this game to become bowl-eligible," coach Skip Holtz said this week. "We want to do that for our seniors, for this football team, for what they've been through, especially as many close games as we've had, where so many losses just take the air out of your lungs. … We've got to find a way to put this thing together for our final home game of the year."
Six is the number of starting seniors between the offense and defense, a small nucleus that has been challenged to keep the team together through what has been, in terms of wins and losses, the worst stretch of football in USF history, losing six of its past seven. When the season started, tonight's matchup was seen as a potential Big East championship game, but the Bulls are at the other end of the conference standings.
The idea of West Virginia coming to Tampa reminds the seniors of 2007, when many of them were redshirt freshmen, watching the Bulls' first sellout at Raymond James Stadium, with 67,018 watching as the Bulls won 21-13 on the way to a No. 2 national ranking.
"That was one of the highest, biggest games of my being here," senior defensive end Patrick Hampton said. "Just being in that environment, seeing Raymond James packed … you could look to the very top of the stadium and see every seat filled. When it got to third down and people started yelling, that's the loudest I've ever heard Ray-Jay. Ever since I've been here, we've tried to get back to that attendance. That was a special day right there."
Six is also the number of years that guard Jeremiah Warren, receiver A.J. Love and safety Jerrell Young have been working toward their final college game. Love earned a sixth year after missing two seasons to injuries, and this final year has been limited by more setback, though he has recovered from a stress fracture in his leg and is expected to play.
Young and Warren signed with USF in 2006 but didn't qualify academically that year, and both were around the program that first year despite not making grades. Young regularly attended practice as a spectator, reminding himself of what he was striving for; Warren moved to Tampa and worked for USF's facilities department, mowing the grass practice fields. Both joined the program in 2007 and finish their careers as three-year starters. Win tonight, and they and their fellow seniors can get themselves an encore in a bowl game, a chance to salvage something positive on the way out.
"It happened so fast," Young said. " … You only get 48 (regular-season games). I'm down to one right now. … It would be tough to be that senior class that didn't go to a bowl game. … It would hurt."
Like so many of their seasons, the Bulls started with promise, beating Notre Dame and starting 4-0. Then came four straight losses to open Big East play.
"It's been a long journey for me, a long road. Long, difficult. I've seen the highs and the lows," said senior center Chaz Hine, a former walk-on now in his third year as a starter. "It's going to be powerful. I don't know how it's going to feel. … Just to end on a positive note, to finish with a good feeling. I want that feeling back."
The hardest part of USF's past five losses is the Bulls had ample chances to win all five. They led in the third quarter against Connecticut, led by 10 in the fourth against Cincinnati, by 14 in the fourth against Rutgers, lost on a field goal as time expired against Miami, and saw another 14-point lead disappear in the fourth quarter against Louisville.
"I feel like we've given away more football games than we've lost," Holtz said.
With that in mind, the Bulls feel like their postseason fate is still in their hands. The same fingers that have let victory slip away so often will try to grab one more win when the team needs it most.
"We just have to fix the small things and get those right," Hampton said. "We haven't been doing bad; we've just been losing. We have one more opportunity, and we can get it done."