For South Florida, it was one maximum-drama, double-overtime victory snatched from the vice grip of defeat in the bank, three more to go.
With its fading bowl hopes at stake, USF gutted out the must-have win Friday before 28,616 at Raymond James Stadium and a national television audience on ESPN2. The Bulls rallied to beat Cincinnati 24-17 in double overtime.
"We had to win," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "I couldn't be more proud of our football team. Everybody came together to win it."
DeJuan Green's tackle-busting 25-yard run to open the second overtime completed a great escape. At the end of regulation, Cincinnati's 40-yard field-goal attempt to win was blocked by 6-foot-5 Huey Whittaker.
The Bulls were outplayed and trailing most of the way.
"Unbelievable," Leavitt said of Green's run. "I thought he was stopped. Was that spectacular? It was absolutely spectacular."
After Green put USF up, Cincinnati (4-4, 2-3 Conference USA) eked out a fourth-and-inches to stay alive. On the next play, however, a bobbled swing pass was intercepted by hustling defensive tackle Lee Roy Selmon Jr., touching off the victory celebration after USF's second double OT win of the month (Oct. 4, 31-28 over Louisville).
"I didn't know he got the interception until I was in the locker room," Leavitt said. "I said, "Who had the interception?' They said "Lee Roy Selmon.' I said, "You've got to be kidding me.' "
"God bless Lee Roy Selmon," said senior safety Kevin Verpaele, whose forced fumble in the fourth quarter led to the tying field goal.
The comeback from a 7-0 halftime deficit came from an offense in disarray. Ineffective quarterback Ronnie Banks (1-of-6, 3 yards) was benched at halftime, and redshirt freshman Pat Julmiste (5-of-12, 67 yards, touchdown) and receiver/option specialist Fisher (12 carries, 48 yards), took the Bulls home. Fisher, who has played quarterback intermittently, took all the snaps in the overtimes.
"I just felt it was the time," Leavitt said of the move to Julmiste over Banks, a junior first-year starter. "We just had to find a way to move the ball."
Last week's 27-6 defeat at Southern Miss made it do or die for USF's bowl hopes. To meet the NCAA requirement for bowl eligibility of six wins against Division I-A schools, USF (5-3, 3-2 in C-USA) needed to win out. Two of its wins, vs. I-AA Nicholls State and Charleston Southern, will not count toward the minimum. The Bulls have one fewer game scheduled this season, 11, than most I-A teams.
Julmiste's 36-yard pass to Elgin Hicks midway through the third quarter tied it at 7, and Santiago Gramatica's 30-yard field goal with 3:33 remaining tied it again at 10.
With the game scoreless in the middle of the first quarter, Cincinnati embarked on a 76-yard, 15-play touchdown drive. The march was abetted by USF's bugaboo: penalties. The Bulls entered fourth nationally with 10.1 penalties a game and had seven for 74 yards.
Cincinnati reached fourth and goal at the 1 on the next series and inserted receiver/option specialist George Murray for quarterback Gino Guidugli. The Bulls buried Murray for a 2-yard loss to remain down seven.
USF was outgained 146-65 in the half and had 11:36 less in time of possession. At that juncture, USF had scored 16 in its past 10 quarters in C-USA games.
The Bulls opened the second half with Fisher at quarterback and inserted Julmiste on the next possession, the first significant action of his career. He got off to a shaky start, nearly throwing an interception.
However, the Bulls drew two pass interference penalties, and on first down from the 36 Julmiste pump-faked and Hicks broke deep into the clear for an easy score.
"He really showed a lot of poise," center Alex Herron said of Julmiste.
Cincinnati answered with 59-yard drive capped by a 38-yard field goal by Chet Ervin for a 10-7 lead with 3:54 to go in the third.
With nine minutes to go and the Bulls set to punt from midfield, they went for a fake. Punter Brandon Baker's pass to linebacker Pat St. Louis was batted down.
Two plays later, USF made its big break. Verpaele knocked the ball from Richard Hall, and defensive tackle Cedric Battles recovered at midfield.
"The defense saved me," said Leavitt, who had made the fake-punt call.
The Bulls, using Julmiste and Fisher, cobbled together a march to the Cincinnati 7 but got backed up to the 13, where Gramatica booted the tying kick.