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USF holds off Temple, moves within one win of bowl eligibility

The Bulls need one win in their final two games to qualify for postseason football.
 
USF receiver Sean Atkins (38) is upended after catching a second-quarter pass Saturday against Temple. Atkins set the Bulls' single-season receptions record in his team's triumph.
USF receiver Sean Atkins (38) is upended after catching a second-quarter pass Saturday against Temple. Atkins set the Bulls' single-season receptions record in his team's triumph. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 11, 2023|Updated Nov. 11, 2023

TAMPA — For the first time in a half-decade, USF appears destined for December football.

In the wake of the most moribund stretch in program history, the Bulls (5-5, 3-3 American Athletic Conference) have put themselves at the brink of bowl eligibility. Senior Tramel Logan’s 22-yard touchdown on an interception return — one of three USF picks — highlighted a mild defensive renaissance in a 27-23 triumph against Temple (3-7, 1-5) on a searing Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.

The victory puts the Bulls within one triumph of earning their first postseason berth since the 2018 Gasparilla Bowl. USF finishes with a trip Friday to Texas-San Antonio (6-3 entering the weekend), followed by a home game against Charlotte (3-7) on Nov. 25.

“It’s surreal, man,” said graduate receiver Sean Atkins, a former walk-on who eclipsed USF’s single-season receptions mark with a nine-catch, 169-yard day.

“Meaningful games in November are something special. I haven’t (been) able to be a part of it my whole career here, so just being able to live in the moment right now and just go out every day in practice and know that it’s something we’re playing for, it’s just something special.”

USF defensive end Tramel Logan (5) intercepts a pass thrown by Temple quarterback E.J. Warner (3) and returns it for a touchdown during the third quarter.
USF defensive end Tramel Logan (5) intercepts a pass thrown by Temple quarterback E.J. Warner (3) and returns it for a touchdown during the third quarter. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

That elusive sixth win appears doable if USF can deliver the complementary brand of football it produced in spurts Saturday.

Before an announced audience of 30,938, USF leaned on some downfield shots and that defensive awakening to build a 17-0 lead after one quarter. On the day’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Byrum Brown found Atkins in single coverage down the left sideline for a 40-yard gain, setting up Brown’s 7-yard touchdown scramble four plays later.

A 44-yard completion from Brown to Yusuf Terry — a Philadelphia native afforded the start against his hometown college — set up a John Cannon 41-yard field goal. Brown later found Khafre Brown behind the Temple secondary for a 32-yard TD to give USF a 17-0 advantage.

Meantime, the Bulls defense, which had surrendered at least 56 points in each of its last three conference games, held the Owls to 24 total yards on their first three possessions. The last of those ended when cornerback Aamaris Brown-Bunkley intercepted an E.J. Warner pass near his sideline inside the Temple 30.

USF defensive back Aamaris Brown-Bunkley (9) celebrates after he intercepts a pass during the first quarter.
USF defensive back Aamaris Brown-Bunkley (9) celebrates after he intercepts a pass during the first quarter. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

“I thought how our guys started was incredible,” said first-year coach Alex Golesh, whose five wins in 10 games exceeds the three-season total of predecessor Jeff Scott (four).

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“I thought offensively to go down and go punch it in relatively quickly, and then the defense to answer the bell, then to score again and the defense answer the bell ... now the next part of who we are has to be, how do we keep the gas going?”

The failure to maintain that early sharpness, especially on offense, prompted Golesh to call the triumph a “really, really ugly win.”

After building that 17-point lead, the Bulls offense wouldn’t find the end zone again, grimacing its way through two missed field goals, an interception and a pair of turnovers on downs. That allowed Temple to chip away at its deficit and threaten late.

It was 20-10 when Logan — a 249-pound defensive end — snagged a short Warner throw and returned it for a score with 3:09 to play in the third.

“He came off the field on the sideline and said, ‘I’ve been on the JUGS (passing machine) coach, like you keep preaching,’ ” Golesh said. “It sounds so simple, why is a (defensive) lineman on the JUGS every single day? Because of the one opportunity that might come at him. You talk about process, that’s nothing we make him do.”

USF quarterback Byrum Brown (17) celebrates with fans after the Bulls defeats Temple, 27-23.
USF quarterback Byrum Brown (17) celebrates with fans after the Bulls defeats Temple, 27-23. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Brown-Bunkley snagged his second interception of the day on Temple’s ensuing possession, but the Bulls went three plays and out. In fact, USF’s two offensive possessions following Brown-Bunkley’s pick consumed less than three minutes.

For the game, USF amassed 451 yards, but was a combined 7 of 20 on third and fourth down, and was flagged 10 times for 70 yards.

“Week 10 of the season, that should not be happening and it was happening,” Golesh said. “So we’ve got to fix that.”

While the Bulls struggled, Warner — son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner — found his groove down the stretch.

His 20-yard scoring pass to sophomore Zae Baines capped a six-play, 53-yard drive; and his 12-yard scoring pass to Dante Wright — while under duress in the pocket — finished a 12-play, 83-yard march in which the Owls converted third and 15 and fourth and 3 situations.

Temple missed the extra point after Wright’s catch, preserving a four-point USF lead with 7:03 to play.

USF wide receiver Khafre Brown (1) celebrates with teammates, after he scores a touchdown against Temple during the first quarter.
USF wide receiver Khafre Brown (1) celebrates with teammates, after he scores a touchdown against Temple during the first quarter. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Temple nearly forced a three-and-out on the following possession, but senior Zymir Cobbs was flagged for hitting Brown out of bounds following a short scramble on third-and-12. Atkins followed with the biggest of his nine receptions, a 16-yard catch-and-run on third and 14 that prolonged a 12-play march that allowed the Bulls to run out the clock.

Atkins now has 69 receptions — two more than the previous mark set in 2016 by Lakewood High alumnus Rodney Adams — with two regular season games remaining.

Meaningful regular-season games, to boot.

“It’s great, honestly,” Brown-Bunkley said. “Just coming from last year, after every game just being down like, ‘Hey, when is this going to stop,’ to coming into this season, 5-5 or whatever. It’s still not what we want, but it’s better than what we’ve been.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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