TAMPA — The senior night festivities and Tulsa formality didn't go according to script for USF on a crisp Thursday evening.
Hardly romp-and-circumstance stuff. To the contrary, the effort was barely sufficient against a two-win foe.
USF's 27-20 win against Tulsa was secured only after Golden Hurricane quarterback Chad President threw an incompletion on fourth and 9 from the Bulls 30 with 27 seconds to play.
At least the 23rd-ranked Bulls now can focus exclusively on next week's trip to UCF.
You know, the biggest game in program history. The one with which this team might have been preoccupied Thursday.
"They hear so much about it and so much has been said about it, and it's what everyone has written," coach Charlie Strong said. "So we're gonna find out next week how much it affected us (against Tulsa)."
One thing's for sure: If the Bulls deliver the same performance in Orlando that they gave a sparse senior night audience of 26,195, their Peach Bowl aspirations will be punctured.
"I would say we just weren't executing," said senior quarterback Quinton Flowers, who totaled 261 yards and passed for two touchdowns in what was almost certainly his Raymond James Stadium finale.
Shaky on both sides, the Bulls (9-1, 6-1 American Athletic Conference) sparkled at the outset, then sputtered the rest of the way. They failed to score 30 points for the second time in three games after achieving the previous 24 contests, and had their seventh kick of the season (a fourth-quarter punt) blocked.
"You look at it, it's the tale of two halves," said Strong, whose team managed three points and 82 total yards in the final 30 minutes.
"The first half offensively we moved the ball up and down the field, they couldn't stop us. And then we come back the second half and didn't move it well at all, couldn't convert it on third down."
Fortunately for them, that crisp start was enough to hold off the Golden Hurricane (2-9, 1-6).
Subtract Tulsa's opening drive — a stunningly easy eight-play, 71-yard touchdown march — and the opening quarter was a senior showcase of sorts for USF, which led 21-7 after 15 minutes.
Flowers, who received the heartiest ovation of the 23 seniors introduced before kickoff, had scoring passes of 25 yards to Tyre McCants (on a screen pass) and 35 yards to Darnell Salomon (on a post).
In between, sixth-year senior Darius Tice (nine carries, 80 yards) took a Flowers handoff and ran nearly untouched up the middle for a 54-yard touchdown.
But the Golden Hurricane's dissection of the Bulls' normally stout run defense kept USF's lead from evolving into a laugher.
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Golden Hurricane two-time 1,000-yard rusher D'Angelo Brewer had 105 of his 163 yards by halftime, accounting for half the yardage on a 74-yard touchdown drive just before intermission that cut USF's lead to 24-17.
Tulsa had seven play of 14 or more yards in the first half alone.
"You look at Tulsa and everybody thinks because of their record they're not very good," Strong said, "but they beat Houston and Houston beat us."
And when the Bulls did tighten up defensively (Tulsa had only 52 yards in the third period), Flowers and Co. couldn't capitalize.
Unheralded walk-on Devon Jones-Stewart blocked a Thomas Bennett punt early in the third, but USF managed 10 yards on the ensuing nine plays, settling for senior Emilio Nadelman's school-record 20th field goal (a 48-yarder) of the season.
After a Tulsa three-and-out possession, the Bulls drove inside the Golden Hurricane red zone, but on second and 11, a scrambling Flowers flung an interception in the back of the end zone.
"I made a rookie mistake once we got in the red zone by just throwing the ball in there," he said, "which I could've thrown it away and just lived to see another down."
That pick was followed by four consecutive drives ending in punts. Flowers, meantime, completed only seven of his final 21 passes after a 4-of-7 start.
Tulsa, however, fared no better as USF's resurgent defense forced punts on the first five Golden Hurricane possessions of the second half.
Senior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez finished with 14 tackles to become the program's all-time tackles leader, while nickel-back Khalid McGee — inserted as a weakside linebacker — had nine tackles.
McGee's most critical tackle may have been a key stop of Brewer in the open field for a 7-yard gain on third and 21 on the final Tulsa drive.
"The first half, we weren't blitzing as much," senior defensive tackle Deadrin Senat said. "And then the second half, we put (McGee) and we told him, 'We're gonna need you to step and play big for us.'"
Playing big — and better — will be an absolute prerequisite for the next contest.
"Our guys understand what's at stake," Strong said, "and we've just got to continue to play well and we just need to put together a complete game, which we haven't done yet."
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.