DALLAS — Its conference title hopes are faintly flickering today, but so are the memories of a forlorn past.
The offense that has specialized in creating separation is doing just that with recent history. USF's 35-27 victory at SMU on a chilly Saturday night tied the program's season record for wins, and sets the table for a watershed contest next weekend at home against UCF.
Three years after finishing 2-10, the Bulls can go 10-2 and set a program single-season record for victories.
"I really want it for those (seniors)," coach Willie Taggart said. "Those guys believed in me and our vision when I came here and asked those guys to come be a part of the Bulls. … They wanted to turn USF football around and they're doing it now."
Achieving 9-2 (and 6-1 in the American Athletic Conference) took two Deatrick Nichols interceptions and some downfield guile Saturday.
On a night when SMU appeared bent on neutralizing Quinton Flowers' zone-read flexibility, the Bulls flourished vertically, with three one-play scoring drives.
They opened the game with Flowers finding Lakewood High alumnus Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a simple streak route for a 77-yard touchdown. By night's end, Flowers also had hooked up with third-year sophomore Tyre McCants for touchdowns of 28 and 65 yards.
The shorter one, immediately following a Ronnie Hoggins fumble recovery, gave USF a 21-14 halftime lead. The longer came one play after Nichols' first interception of the night, giving the Bulls a 28-14 advantage early in the third.
McCants finished with a career-best 105 yards on three receptions.
"If they're gonna play back then we'll run the ball. If they come up, we have guys that can run past them, and I thought Quinton did a great job of throwing the ball down the field," Taggart said. "He was throwing it where those guys can run with it after the catch, and that was great to see."
So too, were some defensive takeaways.
To be sure, issues remain on coordinator Raymond Woodie's maligned unit, which allowed 6-foot-4 Mustangs sophomore Courtland Sutton to collect an SMU-record 252 yards on 13 catches.
But with the Bulls clinging to an eight-point lead, Woodie's unit stood tall on SMU's last two drives.
The next-to-last ended with a Nichols interception at his own 8-yard line. USF then sealed things with a fourth-and-1 tackle of tailback Braeden West by middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez at the Bulls 14 with 1:19 remaining.
"We had like a little run-stop called," Nichols said. "So whatever they would've done we were ready for it."
"They've been getting criticized a lot and rightfully so," Taggart said. "But for them to step up when we needed 'em the most, can't ask for much more than that."
Preceding the Bulls' stinginess was Flowers' sleekness.
His 337 total yards give him 3,672 this season, eclipsing Matt Grothe's single-season mark (3,542). And on a night when SMU appeared to keep a spy on him, he still broke free for a 35-yard run on second and 15, setting up D'Ernest Johnson's 9-yard touchdown to give USF a 35-24 lead.
Flowers and Mack finished with 142 and 129 rushing yards, respectively — the fourth time they've rushed for at least 100 in the same game.
"They kind of tried to stop me from running, keeping me inside," Flowers said. "I was just doing what my coaches told me to do, making the right reads, hitting Tyre McCants on a lot of open passes."
The next read: history. Against the program rival, no less.
"For (the seniors) to go out with a victory at home in their last home game, it's only right that everybody within our program does whatever it takes to make sure that happens next week," Taggart said.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.