BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For all the upheaval USF had experienced in the weeks leading up to Thursday's Birmingham Bowl, one might have understood if the Bulls struggled to get through just one more ounce of adversity.
This month, Willie Taggart, who led the program's turnaround from moribund to the finest campaign in its 20 years, bolted after four seasons for Oregon. The unknown about assistants' futures and the constant questioning about what to expect next under new coach Charlie Strong were enough to leave heads spinning.
But as USF's 18-point, second-half lead slipped into a tie, and eventually overtime, Thursday against South Carolina and the miscues piled up, there were the 25th-ranked Bulls looking as energetic and focused as ever on the frigid sideline of historic Legion Field.
On the first play of overtime, quarterback Quinton Flowers passed to tight end Kano Dillon for a 25-yard touchdown. And on the ensuing South Carolina possession, the Bulls defense — a unit that had been plagued with misfortune all season — earned its biggest stop, forcing a fumble at its 1-yard line and jumping on it to seal a wild 46-39 victory.
It was the first postseason victory for USF (11-2) since it defeated Clemson in the 2010 Meineke Car Care Bowl, and its first win over an SEC opponent in nine years.
"We had to remind ourselves to be smart," interim coach T.J. Weist said. "That's all it was. We talked about not just winning 11 (games for the first time in program history) … but we had to take 11. It wasn't going to be given to us."
The Bulls found that out quickly.
Behind Flowers — the game's MVP for finishing a game-record 23-of-32 for 261 yards and five touchdowns (three running, two passing) — USF had a two-score advantage at halftime, using a dose of dink-and-dunk passes and even some trickery in a first-quarter two-point conversion. The lead ballooned to 39-21 midway through the third quarter on a 47-yard interception return for a score by cornerback and former Tampa Bay Tech standout Tajee Fullwood.
But defensive lapses and stalled possessions swiftly allowed the Gamecocks (6-7) to chip away. Seeing USF all-time rusher Marlon Mack and receiver Rodney Adams get banged up at times on the slippery artificial playing surface didn't make matters easier. Flowers even suffered a gash on his left hand that required a bandage.
After Fullwood's pick-six, South Carolina strung together 17 unanswered points, including a 1-yard touchdown run by A.J. Turner and a two-point conversion pass from freshman Jake Bentley to tight end Hayden Hurst to tie it at 39 with 1:34 left.
The Bulls defense needed to pull together and did so after Flowers' go-ahead touchdown.
On the final play of overtime, defensive end Mike Love sacked Bentley. The ball hit the turf, and safety Khalid McGee leaped on top of it, sending a hefty chunk of the announced crowd of 31,229 into a frenzy. A mass of white uniforms raced onto the field in celebration.
Strong, who was a spectator on the sideline, even joined in, taking photos and embracing Flowers in front of USF's bench.
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"It's pretty ironic that we struggled all year defensively and then we make the biggest stop of the season to win this game," said linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who finished with a team-best nine tackles.
"It was the biggest game."
And a storybook ending to a dream season.