TAMPA — As 11 p.m. approached Saturday, the clock formally struck midnight on USF’s excruciating five-year stretch of irrelevance.
The Bulls transitioned from beleaguered to bowl-eligible.
Quarterback Byrum Brown capped a record-setting season with five total touchdowns as the Bulls (6-6, 4-4 American Athletic Conference) clinched their first postseason berth since 2018 with a 48-14 romp of Charlotte before an announced Raymond James Stadium audience of 29,279.
“What I told (the team) in the locker room just right now was, as imperfect as it is, we get to keep playing,” said Bulls coach Alex Golesh, whose six wins in his inaugural season are two more than USF totaled the previous three years. “Six wins is not the standard, it never will be that. But it’s a start, it’s a foundation being laid.”
Speculation now will center on a matchup against bitter rival UCF (6-6) in an ESPN-owned bowl game, with the Cure Bowl at the Knights’ home stadium (Dec. 16) and the Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James (Dec. 22) among the possibilities.
Currently, the Big 12 (UCF’s conference) has more bowl-eligible teams than bowl tie-ins, meaning a team such as the Knights could be chosen for a December bowl not affiliated with the Big 12 (i.e. Cure, Gasparilla) to fill slots and create more enticing matchups.
Bowl selections formally are announced Dec. 3.
“It’s special,” said receiver Sean Atkins, whose seven catches (for 61 yards) brought his USF single-season record total to 74. “Going home for the whole month of December while everybody practices and goes to bowl games, that eats at you definitely mentally. So being in a position to go out and play in December and play your best football in November, it’s something that you can’t buy. It’s priceless.”
The Bulls’ final hurdle before selection Sunday was fraught with bizarre twists at the outset.
Charlotte drove 71 yards in nine plays on the game’s opening possession for a 7-0 lead, amplifying the defensive vulnerability that has besieged the Bulls all season. Yet the 49ers followed with an onside-kick attempt that bounced out of bounds, setting up USF at the Charlotte 40-yard line.
The Bulls moved to the 1 when senior Yusuf Terry made a one-handed snag of a Brown throw over the middle for 21 yards on third and 17, then failed to punch it in. Nay’Quan Wright’s fourth-down halfback throw to tight end Weston Wolff was deflected.
But Charlotte coach Biff Poggi wasn’t finished gifting golden opportunities to the Bulls.
Four plays later, Poggi opted to go for it on fourth and 1 from his own 10, only to watch quarterback Trexler Ivey’s deep throw down the right sideline fall incomplete. This time, the Bulls made Poggi pay; Brown found Atkins over the middle for a 10-yard touchdown on the next play.
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“I imagine they were trying to hard-count it, and felt like we jumped and then snapped it,” Golesh said. “That’s a scary world to live in. They chose to live in it.”
The Bulls took a 14-7 lead with 8:07 to play in the first half when Atkins took a backward pass from Brown and found veteran tailback Kelley Joiner (four catches, 71 yards, two TDs) isolated downfield for a 62-yard scoring throw. Brown then capped a brisk 56-yard drive with a 4-yard scoring strike to Joiner with 52 seconds remaining in the half.
“Our deal has been, we’ve started fast really these last three weeks, and we’ve not been able to keep our foot on the gas,” Golesh said. “I told the guys Friday night and again (Saturday) morning, at some point we’ve got to go choke somebody out. I know that’s probably not the best thing to say in print media, but you have to just keep your foot on the gas.”
Charlotte (3-8, 2-6) never threatened from there. After marching 71 yards on their opening drive, the 49ers totaled 58 the rest of the first half with two turnovers, including an interception by Daquan Evans — among 15 seniors honored before the game — on the half’s final play.
USF scored three plays into the second half when Brown found receiver Jaden Alexis downfield for a 60-yard TD, giving the Bulls a 28-7 lead. Brown, who later scored on a 35-yard run, finished 22-for-30 for 253 passing yards and four TDs, becoming the first quarterback in program history to eclipse the 3,000-yard mark in a season. His 23 TD passes are only two shy of Quinton Flowers’ season mark.
Brown and sixth-year left tackle Donovan Jennings — the only Bulls player to participate in USF’s last bowl game — were pulled in the waning minutes in a de facto curtain call. Soon thereafter, fireworks were going off behind the south end zone, and the Bulls players were walking along the north end zone slapping high-fives with the student section.
“I don’t know what to say, everybody was just happy, smiling, dancing (afterward),” Brown said. “Anything you can name, we were doing it, so we were having a blast.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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