TAMPA — Shortly after a sprawling U.S. flag was unfurled at midfield, the hosts emerged from their tunnel in helmets bearing a stars-and-stripes Bulls logo. Veterans were honored during timeouts. On USF's "salute to service" night, freedom rang.
Then the Bulls rang it up.
On a patriotic night screaming for flyovers, USF football did just that. After four years of being grounded in the postseason, a program that gradually has gained altitude in the last month finally soared its way back into the airspace of bowl eligibility.
Today, USF isn't merely relevant, it's rolling. Saturday night's 44-23 victory against No. 21 Temple — its first triumph against a ranked team since the 2011 opener at Notre Dame — assured the Bulls' season of stretching into December.
Coach Willie Taggart's tenure now seems certain to stretch a bit longer as well.
"I don't know anything about hot seats," athletic director Mark Harlan said. "He's certainly my coach now and beyond."
After going 7-21 in his first 28 contests, Taggart's club has won five of six, including Saturday's romp in which the Bulls gained a season-best-tying 556 yards against the American Athletic Conference's top defense. USF (6-4, 4-2) can capture the AAC East division if it wins its final two games (against Cincinnati and UCF) and Temple (8-2, 5-1) loses one of its last two (against Memphis and UConn).
"I would say climbing is easier than hanging on, and our guys are climbing in the right direction," Taggart said. "This is what we want. This is what we thought it can be here and, again, it's only the beginning."
A 48-yard touchdown run by Marlon Mack (21 carries, 230 yards, two TDs) with 2:38 to go sealed things on this surreal Saturday in which things seemed to mostly bounce the Bulls' way from the first possession before a boisterous Raymond James Stadium crowd.
A hearty chunk of that announced audience of 28,393 stormed the field as the game clock reached all zeros as the goalposts came down.
"I thought it was a dream," senior center Brynjar Gudmundsson said.
To long-suffering Bulls fans, it only seemed that way.
Temple's 15-play opening drive, featuring a fake punt, produced nothing after Austin Jones' 39-yard field goal try ricocheted off the right upright.
It was the first in a sequence of unsatisfying red-zone trips for Temple, which had to settle for field-goal tries — two of them misses — on five of its trips inside USF's 30. The Bulls defense was equally stubborn against AAC rushing leader Jahad Thomas, who had 35 of his 65 yards on one carry.
Standing in stark contrast was arguably the Bulls' most impressive offensive surge of 2015: A dizzying first-half sequence in which they scored four touchdowns in as many possessions.
The first, a 68-yard scoring pass from Quinton Flowers to Rodney Adams (seven catches, 147 yards) — who sprinted behind two defenders — tied the score at 7. The last, a 20-yard rollout TD pass from Flowers to Mack, put USF up 28-10.
Sandwiched between was Flowers' 5-yard run, one play after cornerback Deatrick Nichols intercepted Owls quarterback P.J. Walker, and a 57-yard Mack scoring run up the middle.
"Every time we went on the field, Coach T told us to lock in, let's execute," said Flowers, who finished with 320 total yards and three TDs (two passing). " 'Let's go one play at a time.' … We just went out there as an offense, as a unit, and that's what we did and we came out successful."
Sophomore Emilio Nadelman's career-best 47-yard field goal just before halftime made it 31-10, giving USF its highest first-half point total since a 2011 home win against UTEP (also 31). At that point, the Bulls had amassed 296 yards, only 39 fewer than the per-game average surrendered by the Owls in their first nine contests.
Nadelman added second-half field goals of 24 and 37 yards on his perfect (3-for-3) night.
In the green-and-gold precinct, it was a perfect night all around.
"Not startled (by the turnaround). Hard work always pays off," Harlan said. "These are incredible young men coached by a great coaching staff, and I'm so proud we're all here together at this time at USF."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.