TAMPA — They employed five defensive linemen instead of four, moved their defensive coordinator from the press box to the sideline, bedecked themselves in military-appreciation uniforms and dusted off the jet sweep.
In the wake of last weekend's fiasco in Philly, no alteration or tweak seemed off-limits for the USF Bulls. The only thing that didn't appear tweaked Friday night against No. 22 Navy was quarterback Quinton Flowers' hamstring.
Seven nights after hobbling off Lincoln Financial Field, Flowers ran the first leg in a de facto Bulls track meet that left the Midshipmen gasping. By the end of the warm, windy evening, most Bulls fans were breathless, too.
USF's 52-45 victory — far more lopsided than the score indicated — in front of an announced crowd of 31,824 keeps the Bulls' hopes for an American Athletic Conference East Division title percolating.
"Really excited with the way our guys responded after last week," coach Willie Taggart said, referring to the 46-30 loss to Temple the previous Friday. "Whenever you're playing a team like Navy, you want them to play from behind, and I think our game plan worked out pretty well for ourselves."
If the Bulls (7-2, 4-1 AAC) win out — against SMU, Memphis and UCF — and Temple loses another league game, USF hosts the AAC title game on Dec. 3. Only a week ago, such a scenario didn't appear plausible. Then again, Flowers didn't appear mobile.
Yet there he was on Friday's fourth play, dashing up the middle for a 63-yard scoring run. Flowers, who said he was limited in practice this week, finished with his sixth career 100-yard rushing effort (176) and second-highest total yardage output (395) of his career.
"He's different," Taggart said. "He ain't just like most people. He's like a video game, seriously."
Two possessions after Flowers broke loose, Marlon Mack did the same. The Bulls' all-time rushing leader took a jet sweep and sprinted 85 yards — his longest run as a Bull and the second-longest in school history — to give USF a 21-0 lead.
By the end of the first period, USF led 28-0 and had amassed 190 rushing yards, a program record for one quarter. By the end of the second, the Bulls had set the school record for rushing yards in a half (279). The game record of 377 was shattered in the fourth. "We tried to plug all the holes but the ship kept sinking," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
USF finished with 412 on the ground, 95 more than the Midshipmen. Its 629 total yards were third most in school history.
"You hear all the time about Navy's a rushing team; they rush, rush, rush," Taggart said. "We feel like we're a pretty good rushing football team too, and I challenged our guys not to let Navy come in and outrush us."
The maligned USF defense, which surrendered 319 rushing yards at Temple, shifted to a five-man front that slowed the usually ruthlessly efficient Navy triple option, at least in the first half.
Among the evening's most critical plays: linebacker Nigel Harris' tackle of quarterback Will Worth on fourth and 2 at midfield on the Midshipmen's first possession. Seven plays later, D'Ernest Johnson ran for a 23-yard score to give USF a 14-0 lead.
"I think that's the difference when you see us play with energy," middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez said. "We came out, got three big stops in a row, our offense took advantage of that."
With the nation's fourth-best rushing attack entering the game, averaging 293.2 yards per game, Navy finished with 618 total yards but had only 140 on the ground at intermission.
Worth, a former Newsome High three-way standout who ran for 201 against Memphis six days before, found himself repeatedly bottled up in the backfield and had 56 rushing yards at halftime. But he finished with four rushing touchdowns and a career-best 299 passing yards, flinging a 9-yard scoring strike on the game's last play.
"I was a little disappointed in the way our defense played in the second half to give up all those passing yards, when we knew they had to throw the football to get back in it," Taggart said.
"But I was impressed with our defense, especially in the first (half) in what they did, to keep (Navy) down like they did, because the last couple of games (Navy) had been playing at a high level offensively."
Not as high as the level USF scaled Friday.
By halftime, the Bulls had collected their 28th, 29th, 30th and 31st rushing touchdowns of the season, eclipsing the program mark of 30 set in 2007. By the second half's opening moments, Mack and Flowers had 100-yard rushing efforts for the third time in four games. Mack finished with 125. Johnson (19 carries, 107 yards) joined them in the fourth quarter, marking the first time USF had three 100-yard rushers in the same game.
On this mesmerizing night, seems they even tweaked the record books.
"At the end of the day, you're playing a team like Navy that can easily put up points and drive the ball," Flowers said. "The only thing that was going through my mind was: every time, just score."