TAMPA — Meteorologically and historically, it was a blissful day for a burial.
On an afternoon in which humidity was far from full strength, USF laid to rest the moral victories and valiant efforts with which it has been forced to settle the better part of a half-decade. Instead, the Bulls delivered a tangible, tantalizing, tone-setting triumph.
One that just might resonate into the distant future.
USF’s 42-29 victory against Rice before a Raymond James Stadium audience of 29,141 vanquished a stench of futility that had lingered for roughly a half-decade.
The win ended the program’s 13-game American Athletic Conference losing streak dating to October 2021. The Bulls (2-2, 1-0 AAC) haven’t been .500 or better through the season’s first four games since 2018.
Yet in the wake of a historic offensive afternoon, first-year coach Alex Golesh was concerned only with what the triumph meant in the context of the Bulls’ foundation, not the futility of the past.
“I appreciate being 1-0 in this one,” he said.
“Just like I told our kids, it doesn’t mean anything more or less than that. It just means our process was right enough to go win a football game. I don’t know the other significance of it. I wasn’t here, I really don’t care. I care about our process being right last week to be able to go 1-0.”
Yet amid that process, Golesh’s maligned downfield passing game evolved from mediocre to mesmerizing in one surreal afternoon.
Naiem Simmons, a transfer from Football Championship Subdivision program Wagner, obliterated the Owls secondary for 272 receiving yards on eight catches. The single-game yardage effort was the most prolific in the history of major college football in Florida, eclipsing the previous mark set by FSU’s Ron Sellers (14 catches, 260 yards vs. Wake Forest) in 1968.
Meantime, redshirt freshman quarterback Byrum Brown, whom Golesh had said was still developing a clairvoyance with his mostly new set of receivers, finished 22-of-29 for 435 yards with two touchdowns and zero picks.
The passing yardage was the second most by Bulls quarterback in a game, behind Quinton Flowers’ 503-yard effort against the Knights in 2017. Brown also ran for 82 yards, joining Flowers as the only two USF players to amass at least 500 total yards in a single contest.
Golesh credited Brown — who turns 19 on Friday — with a halftime adjustment that enabled USF to outscore Rice 29-15 in the final two quarters and annihilate the Owls over the top.
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“I just made a suggestion, let the wide receivers go win deep,” Brown said. “He listened and I’m glad he did. A lot of fun.”
Five of the Bulls’ splash offensive plays (15 or more yards) occurred in the second half, with Brown finding Simmons (mostly in single coverage) for completions of 51, 42, 49 and 52 yards after halftime.
“The defense they play, if it’s not man, they play quarters and they roll their safety down a lot,” said Simmons, who caught all eight of the passes targeted to him. “When we’re playing the offense we play, which is really fast, they tend to make mistakes, and we tend to capitalize on those mistakes.”
A day before, during the Bulls’ regular “Fast Fridays” practice, Golesh pulled Simmons to the side and told the 5-foot-10 junior — who totaled seven catches in the first three games — that he was going to collect 150 receiving yards.
“I told him that not because I knew we were going to throw it to him a bunch of times, but I just knew it was going to pay him back,” Golesh said. “When you pour into your process, it will pay you back. It will. It has for me, and it has for the elite teams I’ve been on.”
His team trailing 14-13 at halftime, Brown found Simmons in single coverage down the right sideline for a 51-yard gain on the second half’s opening play. Three plays later, Brown skipped into the end zone untouched from a yard out, giving USF a 20-14 lead.
But a two-play sequence midway through the third quarter nearly proved back-breaking.
Moments after Bulls tailback Nay’Quan Wright fumbled into the end zone on a promising drive that would have given USF a two-score lead, Rice veteran vagabond quarterback J.T. Daniels found junior Dean Connors behind the Bulls secondary for an 80-yard touchdown.
“Really disappointing,” Golesh said. “At the end of the day, biggest point swing you could ever have. ... Literally all we talk about, next play. Like literally, next play.”
It arrived in short order.
Two possessions later, Brown again found Simmons isolated behind the Rice secondary for a 49-yard touchdown, giving USF a 27-21 lead. The very next possession, he hit Simmons on a deep ball over the middle for 52 yards, setting up an 8-yard scoring toss to Sean Atkins.
Wright then atoned for his earlier miscue, sealing the outcome with a 1-yard scoring run with 8:52 to play, giving the Bulls a 40-21 lead. A gadget two-point try — Atkins taking an end-around handoff and hitting Brown for the conversion — made it 42-21.
“Coach preaches it all the time, next-play mentality,” Brown said. “Just being able to bounce back and recover and still put a foot on the gas, that’s what we did.”
Defensively, things were a bit more dicey, though Todd Orlando’s unit held Rice to 1 rushing yard.
A week after holding Alabama to 113 first-half yards in the most inspiring Bulls defensive effort in recent memory, USF wasn’t nearly as stingy against Daniels. Playing for his fourth Football Bowl Subdivision program, Daniels was 27-of-40 for 432 yards and three touchdowns before exiting after being shaken up on a third-quarter sack.
So the process hasn’t been perfected.
But for one exhilarating night, it was sufficient. If not sublime.
“It’s definitely what we’ve been waiting on,” defensive end Jonathan Ross said. “I just feel as though there’s more to come.”
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