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Quinton Flowers, USF rally past Texas Tech in Birmingham Bowl

LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times South Florida Bulls wide receiver Tyre McCants (8) makes the game-winning touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter of the Birmingham Bowl between the South Florida Bulls and Texas Tech Red Raiders at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017.
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times South Florida Bulls wide receiver Tyre McCants (8) makes the game-winning touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter of the Birmingham Bowl between the South Florida Bulls and Texas Tech Red Raiders at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017.
Published Dec. 23, 2017

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — After falling excruciatingly short of the opportunity to etch its name on conference title hardware, USF managed to carve out a consolation prize.

The risque Birmingham Bowl trophy, replete with its sculpture of a bare-bottomed Roman god.

Speaking of statues and gods, one must wonder if USF someday will commission an engraved likeness of quarterback Quinton Flowers.

In a collegiate finale that exemplified his dazzling career, Flowers exploded in the second half to lift the No. 23 Bulls (10-2) to a 38-34 triumph Saturday against Texas Tech before a generously announced Legion Field crowd of 28,623.

His final pass as a Bull: a wheel route to 235-pound slot receiver Tyre McCants down the right side for the go-ahead 26-yard touchdown with 16 seconds remaining.

"I mean, he's special," Red Raiders safety Jah'Shawn Johnson said. "He can beat you on his feet, beat you in the air. We saw on film all month that he's making guys miss, getting out of the pocket, extending plays for his team. And that's what he did tonight."

Flowers finished the chilly, damp day with 417 total yards, becoming the school's career rushing leader (3,672 yards) and the American Athletic Conference's all-time total yardage leader.

He exits USF with 11,802 total yards, 34 school records and consecutive Birmingham Bowl titles. The number of breathtaking finishes? The math's still being done on that, but he tacked another one on Saturday.

Texas Tech took a 34-31 lead on quarterback Nic Shimonek's 25-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Vasher on a busted Bulls coverage with 1:31 remaining. But USF still had three timeouts in its pocket, and the greatest player in school history in its huddle.

"He's gonna go score, and that's kind of just what we thought," senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez said.

After two short completions, the Bulls took a timeout. Flowers then ran for 13 yards to the Texas Tech 47 and converted on third and 10 two plays later with a 21-yard scramble to the 26. His winning throw to McCants followed.

"It kind of reminded me of last year's Birmingham Bowl," a 46-39 overtime win against South Carolina, Sanchez said. "I thought, 'Man are we gonna go to overtime again?' But Quinton is Quinton, and he showed up to play and he made some spectacular plays, and Tyre made an awesome catch, and that was the ballgame."

The late theatrics stood in stark contrast to the game's outset. An overcast morning of hearty gusts and sheets of rain gave way to dry game conditions, but the skies remained dreary.

So did the Bulls' offense, at least initially. In a game widely forecast as a showcase of two breakneck-paced offenses, the teams delivered more flatness than flair.

Showing none of the big-play sparkle it brandished in last month's 49-42 loss at UCF, the Bulls managed only 130 first-half yards. Their first touchdown, a 21-yard Flowers strike over the middle to McCants (six catches, 88 yards), didn't occur until the final minute of the half and was set up by a shanked Red Raiders punt.

Flowers exited the first half 4-of-14 for 42 yards, and he gained only 15 yards on six runs. He fumbled on the second play of the second half, setting up Texas Tech's second touchdown that gave the Red Raiders a 17-10 lead.

"Even before the game started … I just didn't feel the vibe," coach Charlie Strong said.

"I said at warmups, 'We're not gonna do this. We're not gonna go through the motion, we're not gonna have fake juice. When we're out here, we're here for a purpose, and that's to go win this football game.'?"

But while Flowers and Co. struggled, the Red Raiders were held in check primarily by senior nose guard Deadrin Senat, who had three sacks in the first half, two of which ended drives.

Two other Tech scoring threats were thwarted by interceptions, including safety Jaymon Thomas' pick of a deflected ball in his end zone on third and goal.

The offense then picked up steam on its second possession of the second half, mounting a 75-yard drive capped by Flowers' 17-yard touchdown pass to Darnell Salomon that tied the score at 17.

But the Red Raiders (6-7) would take the lead three more times, finishing with 549 total yards. Meantime, their defense twice stuffed USF on fourth-and-short situations inside the red zone, tripping up tailback Darius Tice in the backfield on fourth and goal inside the 1 with 13:58 to play.

Yet in the end, Flowers had one more historic moment in him.

Flowers said before the series started, he talked with assistant coach Shaun King on the sideline.

"He told me, 'You've got to stay locked in.' That's what I did out there. … As my coaches were calling the play and I get it in, I just looked what's going to happen before it even happened. I was telling myself I've got to hit my guys in the chest."

Sure enough, he found McCants' chest. And a fan base's heart.

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