Against long odds and several large deficits, underdog USF gave Memphis a mighty battle before falling 59-50 Saturday at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.
Time after time it looked like USF, hoping to make a bowl game for the first time since 2018, might be headed for a thorough beating by the Tigers, who came in as 13½-point favorites.
But the Bulls (4-5 overall, 2-3 in the American Athletic Conference) never backed off.
In the first half alone, USF trailed by 14 points on four separate occasions only to answer each time with a touchdown drive of its own.
When the first half ended USF — despite giving up 366 yards and five touchdowns — trailed only 35-28.
“We were down 14 points and we kept fighting back, and the positive is that the sideline stuck together and kept encouraging each other on both sides of the ball,” USF head coach Alex Golesh said. “I’m proud of the fight we gave.”
The Bulls got the ball to start the third quarter and marched 75 yards in eight plays for a touchdown, tying the score (at 35 with 11:53 remaining in the quarter) for the first time since the opening kickoff.
USF then took its only lead, 42-38, with 6:53 remaining in the third after yet another 75-yard drive, this time in seven plays.
“I felt like there’s a point in the game where what we do offensively (fast-paced, no-huddle attack) got (Memphis) tired and we had to keep going,” Golesh said. “There wasn’t an exhale moment by us by any means, because I knew that Memphis would keep fighting. I do think there was momentum there for us, and I just think we didn’t take advantage of it.”
Memphis (7-2, 4-1) scored the next 14 points on two big strikes, the first a 34-yard rush by Blake Watson, the second an 85-yard pass to Roc Taylor with 12:54 remaining in the game.
Golesh described the second score, a screen pass from freshman Tevin Carter, who replaced injured Seth Henigan, that Taylor took the distance, as “kind of a back-breaker.”
“You’ve got to get (Taylor) down on that play,” Golesh said. “The backup comes in, and it was (a 10-yard run-pass option play), and we have to (tackle) the screen guy.
“As coaches, we have to put our guys in position to get him down and play the next play. But we didn’t do that. It’s coaching, and we’ll get that right.”
From there, both Memphis and USF made key stops on defense, which was kind of an anomaly considering that USF gained 583 total yards while Memphis finished with 580.
Once again, USF quarterback Byrum Brown, who before Saturday was one of only three players nationally with 1,800 yards passing and 500 yards rushing, was outstanding. He completed 31 of 38 passes for 357 yards and five touchdowns with one interception. He rushed 23 times for 100 yards.
Brown was involved in a couple of debatable turnovers: a ruled fumble on an attempted pass (giving Memphis the ball at the USF 3-yard line less than 4 minutes into the game) and an interception thrown into the end zone with 2:10 left in the third quarter after the Bulls’ receiver collided with a defender.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Golesh took particular exception to the interception, which he believed involved Memphis pass interference.
“The play in the end zone was the most insane thing I’ve ever seen — to say that’s not (pass interference),” Golesh said. “But it is what it is, and you can’t have it back. … You can’t count on an official to make the right call. You have to go out and make plays.”
USF receiver Sean Atkins,nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, which goes to the most outstanding Football Bowl Subdivision player who began his career as a walk-on, finished with a game-high nine receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown.
• • •
Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.