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USF never doubts ability to rally, tops former conference foe UConn

The Bulls, down 21-10 in the fourth quarter, get key plays from Byrum Brown, Nay’Quan Wright and the defense down the stretch.
 
USF's Nay'Quan Wright has a banner day against UConn, rushing for 186 yards and two touchdowns.
USF's Nay'Quan Wright has a banner day against UConn, rushing for 186 yards and two touchdowns. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Oct. 22, 2023|Updated Oct. 22, 2023

After two weeks of rather brutal beatings, USF traveled to Connecticut on Saturday and showed tremendous resiliency down to the final wild minutes.

The Bulls, who gave up a combined 112 points in their last two losses, made enough stops and big plays to pull off a come-from-behind 24-21 victory over the Huskies at overcast Pratt & Whitney Stadium.

It was the type of moxie first-year coach Alex Golesh expects to see.

“This is really good evidence of the amount of work we have put in and that if your process is right you give yourself a chance at the end to go ahead and win,” Golesh said. “We talk about being a fourth-quarter team and we work on it every single day. The challenge is to go harder for longer, and that effort at practice showed up today. … You just have to work harder and harder and harder.”

There were plenty of highlights throughout the game but none more riveting than on the Bulls’ final touchdown drive, a nine-play, 90-yarder that ended with Nay’Quan Wright rushing in from 4 yards.

Just a few seconds earlier, Wright, who finished with a career-high 26 carries for 186 yards and two touchdowns, ripped off a 47-yard run to set up the final score with four minutes, two seconds remaining.

“We were preaching all week the ‘count on me’ mindset, so I just told our guys up front that if they opened up those lanes they could count on me,” said Wright, who last week rushed for 106 yards in the loss to FAU. “I made sure they knew, ‘You can count on me.’ ”

Before the final scoring drive, USF quarterback Byrum Brown said, “I believed we were going to make the plays,” which was similar to the feeling when the Bulls fell behind 21-10 with 12:45 left in the game.

“Nobody’s heads were down and we thought we’re still going to do this,” said Brown, who finished 27-of-39 for 206 yards passing, with 99 of those coming in the fourth quarter. “Everybody just believed. Everybody believed in each other.”

Then Brown made sure to emphasize that the same could be said for the defense, which gave up almost 1,200 combined yards the previous two weeks, but on Saturday not only held UConn (1-6) to just 368 yards but also picked off a pass (key interception on the last play of the first half by Jaelen Stokes) and collected three lost fumbles.

The last Huskies fumble was arguably the most satisfying for the Bulls (4-4). UConn quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson sprinted forward but Bulls linebacker Mac Harris punched the ball loose as Roberson crashed to the turf. Nickel back Daquan Evans recovered the ball on the UConn 46-yard line.

From there, the Bulls basically ran out the clock.

Golesh said Saturday’s victory was far from perfect, but it was satisfying.

“I thought our defense showed up for all four quarters, but our offense (which came into the game ranked 39th nationally at 433 yards a game), didn’t show up for almost three quarters,” Golesh said. “But then we did show up when we needed to and I think we were confident throughout.

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“I think our players have earned the right to be confident. I thought even when our offense sputtered we still looked confident. We just didn’t execute.”

The Bulls head into their bye week, before their next conference game at Memphis on Nov. 4, feeling a bit more bolstered.

“Just knowing what we did the last two weeks and then to come out (Saturday) and get stops when we needed to and to get some turnovers, well, it feels good,” said Stokes, who also recovered a key fumble within the game’s first four minutes on the UConn 10-yard line.

Just seconds before Stokes’ recovery, USF had been stopped on downs after the game’s opening drive of 11 plays and 71 yards.

Stokes also finished with seven tackles, tied for second on the day with Harris and one behind linebacker Jhalyn Shuler.

This was the 19th meeting between USF and Connecticut and the first since 2019. The Bulls improved to 13-6 all-time against the Huskies and 6-4 in Hartford as they extended their win streak to nine games over UConn, a former Big East and American conference member with USF.

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