MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If USF's 10-game body of work has revealed anything patently obvious, it's that the Bulls' best defense is its dynamic offense.
For the second game in a row, proficiency atoned for porousness as USF (8-2, 5-1 American Athletic Conference) kept its remote league title hopes alive with a dizzying, defensively challenged 49-42 victory against Memphis.
Junior quarterback Quinton Flowers, arguably the front-runner for AAC offensive player of the year, clinched things with a 22-yard scoring scramble with 1:46 to go.
Two plays earlier, on third and 8, he flung a short throw to Rodney Adams as he was going down in the backfield for a 13-yard gain.
"The kid is unbelievable," coach Willie Taggart said. "You show me someone better."
Memphis quickly drove to the Bulls 3 on its final gasp, but 5-foot-10 cornerback Deatrick Nichols broke up three consecutive passes — two intended for 6-3 receiver Phil Mayhue — to seal it.
"The last time we were on the road (at Temple), when we had adversity we didn't respond well," Taggart said. "We talked about it all week, and when things got tough for us in this game, again, our guys didn't flinch."
Before a national TV audience and Liberty Bowl crowd of 37,218, the teams combined for nearly 1,300 yards and four lead changes. Against USF's 105th-ranked run defense, Memphis amassed a season-high 283 yards on the ground.
"That was a pretty explosive offense, too," Taggart said, "but we can tackle a hell of a lot better than we did."
Adams resuscitated his trademark jet sweep for a 92-yard first-quarter touchdown run, the longest in Bulls history.
A little later, Flowers — who totaled a USF single-game record 473 yards — became the first Bull ever to run for 1,000 yards and throw for 2,000 in the same season.
He clinched the milestone early in the second quarter. Facing fourth and 3 near midfield, Flowers found a seam on the left side on a designed run and dashed 48 yards for a touchdown, giving USF a 21-10 lead.
His 210 rushing yards were a career best. His 24-of-29 passing effort (82.8 percent) eclipsed Matt Grothe's school record for completion percentage. Today, he's the only Division I quarterback in Florida history with a 1,000-yard rushing season.
"Unbelievable," said Taggart, whose team posted the second-highest yardage total (679) in program history. "I hope the whole country was watching this game tonight, especially whoever has people up for awards at the quarterback position."
On a night when USF's glaring liability — run stoppage in a 4-2-5 alignment — again reared itself in short order, the Bulls needed every millimeter Flowers could give them.
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The Tigers drove 90 yards on seven plays on the second half's opening possession to take a 24-21 lead. The highlight: a 35-yard sweep by freshman Patrick Taylor near midfield.
Memphis recovered its onside kick, but on its second play from scrimmage, Nichols picked off a Riley Ferguson rollout pass at USF's 19. Five plays later, Flowers scored on a 12-yard scramble.
The Tigers responded with a 61-yard touchdown drive in which 50 were gained on the ground. Flowers counterpunched with a 40-yard scoring strike to wideout Tyre McCants.
Flowers then provided a presumed cushion, his 35-yard run highlighting a seven-play scoring drive that gave USF a 42-34 lead with 7:05 to go.
The lead lasted 19 seconds.
After a 36-yard kick return, Ferguson found 1,000-yard receiver Anthony Miller behind single coverage for a 57-yard touchdown. The two-point try tied it.
After Flowers' fifth touchdown, Memphis needed six plays to move to the USF 3, where it faced second and goal.
Enter Nichols, who called the ensuing sequence the highlight of his career.
"My team needed me," he said. "The offense did their job and it was time for us to bow up."