Last year's Syracuse game marked turning point for USF, Quinton Flowers

USF's quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) keeps the ball as he rushes for a TD in the 4th qtr. during USF's game against Syracuse at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Saturday 10/10/2015.
USF's quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) keeps the ball as he rushes for a TD in the 4th qtr. during USF's game against Syracuse at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Saturday 10/10/2015.
Published Sept. 17, 2016

TAMPA — Orange-clad alumni will converge in upstate New York this weekend to reminisce, revel and root. For some, it's a once-a-year pilgrimage, occurring a tad earlier than normal.

But USF just might have the Syracuse faithful trumped. The Bulls will see the Syracuse homecoming and raise it an anniversary. Roughly a year ago at this time, the trajectory of the Willie Taggart era altered dramatically, from a southerly spiral to a surge.

The Bulls offense — Quinton Flowers and Co. — found its groove against Syracuse.

"Everything just turned around," Flowers said. "With the Syracuse game, us doing what we did last year, that was our turning point."

A Bulls team that entered the 2015 matchup on the brink of a meltdown (1-3 record) enters the 2016 rematch on a tear of historic dimensions. Counting that 45-24 rout of the burnt Orange, USF has won nine of its past 11.

The Bulls ultimately set 34 team or individual offensive records last year and find themselves in the most prolific scoring stretch (48.7 points per game in their past six) in program history. And Flowers? He has evolved from tentative offensive caretaker to reigning team MVP.

"Then to now, it's like a cater­pillar blossoming into a butterfly," senior receiver Rodney Adams said.

It all started with Syracuse. Or more specifically, several days before Syracuse. The story of Flowers' transformation nearly has taken on folklore status.

After edging senior Steven Bench for the starting job in the preseason, Flowers — a four-star recruit as a dual-threat extraordinaire at Miami Jackson High — couldn't seem to find his rhythm in USF's newfangled spread, zone-read offense.

His struggles were laid bare before a national TV audience in a 24-17 home loss to Memphis on a Friday night. Each of the Bulls' first nine possessions began with a run, and Flowers attempted only six downfield shots in the first three quarters. For the night, he ran only twice.

"I felt like last year, the beginning of the season, I was playing like a robot," Flowers said. "Just fundamentally sound instead of just going out and playing my game."

A few nights later, Taggart had the quarterbacks and running backs to his house. During dinner, tailback Darius Tice began breaking the ice and — to a degree — Flowers' chops.

"He mentioned, 'Hey Coach, Quinton's scared of you. For whatever reason, he's afraid of you, Coach. When you come around, he's just not the same person,' " Taggart recalled.

Flowers insists his reserved manner was borne more out of youth. "I was just a young guy just doing everything Coach tells you to do," he said this week. "I was just listening; whatever (Taggart) told me to do I'd just go out there and do it."

Tice, a Miami Northwestern alumnus who had played against Flowers in high school, wasn't done. Quickly, his shtick transitioned to sincerity.

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"And he was like, 'We need Quinton to be like he was in high school,' " Taggart said.

" 'He made plays and he did all these things and made these gestures, we need him to be that guy.' And I can recall Tice telling Quinton, 'We need you to be the first one out of the locker room. … We need you to walk out in the middle of (Raymond James Stadium) and look around and then come back and tell everybody the coast is clear.' "

Taggart recalls Flowers being mostly unresponsive during Tice's monologue, aside from a smile. As the players were leaving, the coach took the quarterback aside.

"I held Quinton back and said, 'You know what, Tice and D'Ernest (Johnson) and those guys were joking with you and everything, but what they were really doing was screaming into you what they're looking for from you,' " Taggart said.

"'They want you to lead. They want you to go out and they've been waiting for a guy at quarterback to do that.' "

Flowers agreed, then uttered four words that changed the course of Bulls football lore: "Let me go, Coach."

Translation: Remove the offensive shackles and let me do my thing.

That Saturday against Syracuse, Flowers passed for a then-career-best 259 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 55 yards and a score. He set up USF's first touchdown with a 56-yard pass to Tyre McCants, then capped an end-around flea-flicker by finding Ryeshene Bronson at the goal line for a 42-yard score.

"I played against him, so I already knew like, 'This man, he's a beast,' " Tice said. "I knew once he got in his groove and they let him go and let him have a little more freedom, he was gonna do his thing."

Flowers led the 2015 team to a school-record 5,741 total yards and set USF single-season marks for touchdown passes (22) and total touchdowns (34). His 991 rushing yards were most in a season by a Bulls quarterback.

"I stopped playing like a robot and played my game," said Flowers, second in the American Athletic Conference in total offense (627 yards) after two games this season. "And from there, our standards just have been going up."

Syracuse was the launching point. Flowers remains in orbit — in another stratosphere altogether — entering the rematch.

"It just goes back," Flowers said, "to when Coach T gave me the go word."