TAMPA — For a half, they looked too young.
For a half, they looked too lost. For a half, the USF Bulls defenders looked like a huddle filled with players who needed to do a lot of growing up.
And then they did.
Just like that, the Bulls were fast enough and good enough and mean enough. Just like that, a rebuilt secondary was still standing, and Kansas' terrific quarterback, Todd Reesing, was mortal, and a game that had started all wrong had ended up right.
Just like that, safety Nate Allen was running free with an interception to set up the winning field goal, and for the Bulls, all things were still possible.
Before you can truly grasp how well the defense played in the second half — most of the time, anyway — of Friday night's 37-34 victory, you must first remember how out of it the unit looked in the first half.
For two quarters, this game looked like the Reesing-for-Heisman highlight film. The Bulls had no idea what to do with him. Reesing seemed to have as much time as he wanted when he dropped back to pass, and he always seemed to have a receiver open enough everywhere he looked, and third downs seemed to be no more troublesome to him than speed bumps.
Consider this statistic: Reesing hit 17 of 22 passes for 224 yards … in the first half . Not to say Reesing carved up the Bulls, but for two quarters, Raymond James Stadium was a slaughterhouse.
Kansas led 20-3 late in the first half, and the margin might have been bigger if not for two drives that bogged down inside the USF 15. You could not help but wonder what West Virginia's Pat White or Louisville's Hunter Cantwell or UConn's Tyler Lorenzen — or any other quarterback on USF's schedule — was thinking as he watched. Odds are, all of them were not looking through their fingers as if watching a horror movie.
"Our coverage stunk at certain times," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "It was just awful."
And then it flipped. All of it.
Granted, it may sound silly to praise a defense that surrendered 34 points and 434 yards, even to Reesing and the Jayhawks. This time, however, the story was a unit rebounding from one half to the other, and the star was a safety who made the big play in the end.
In the second half, Reesing suddenly had to contend with a pass rush, and his receivers were better covered, and the Kansas offensive no longer looked as if it knew shortcuts through the Bulls defense. The defense that gave up 273 yards in the first half surrendered 9 in the third quarter.
Oh, give Reesing credit. In the fourth quarter, he brought his team back from a two-touchdown deficit to tie.
In the final minute, however, perhaps the Jayhawks got a little greedy. Reesing threw deep, and Allen picked off the ball and returned it 40 yards to the Kansas 27 Two plays later, freshman Maikon Bonani kicked a 43-yard field goal to win the game.
"My eyes lit up," Allen said. "It was a floater, so I thought just go get it at its highest point. It was a big play."
For the Bulls defense, it was a wonderful way to finish a game in which it had to scramble for most of the night. True, Reesing has had good games before, and he'll carve up other teams before the year is over. But the USF defense has faced good quarterbacks before and won.
All in all, it was perhaps the finest of USF's comebacks. Oh, the Bulls have won a lot of big games by now, but in the biggest — against West Virginia, Louisville, Auburn — the formula was usually the same. USF would start fast, get a big lead and then either run away or hang on.
This time the Bulls were down 17 points in the second quarter to the No. 13 team in the nation, and they won. They lost a 14-point lead for the second straight game, and they won.
True, the defense still has work to do. There were too many open receivers, and the tackling could be sharper, and the pass rush could be more consistent, and as a unit, the Bulls need to learn to turn off the lights in the fourth quarter.
After this, however, the defense has possibilities. If it blossoms, the Bulls have a chance to be a player in the Big East.
A defense grew into something better Friday night.
Perhaps, a football team did, too.