A year later, Bulls seek to blot out horror of ‘fourth and 24’

A desperation fourth-down pass helped propel the Cougars to a 28-24 upset of USF in 2017.
USF defensive back Deatrick Nichols (3) and linebacker Auggie Sanchez react to the touchdown by Houston late in the fourth quarter of last season's game, a 28-24 Cougars victory at Raymond James Stadium. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
USF defensive back Deatrick Nichols (3) and linebacker Auggie Sanchez react to the touchdown by Houston late in the fourth quarter of last season's game, a 28-24 Cougars victory at Raymond James Stadium. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Published Oct. 24, 2018|Updated Oct. 24, 2018

TAMPA  Toss the five-syllable phrase into the open forum, and the responses from USF's players and coaches range from dismissive to diplomatic.

One year after fourth and 24, no one truly bites on the sorest of Bulls subjects.

"We got it corrected and it's in the past now," said senior nickel back Ronnie Hoggins, clearly visible in fourth-and-24 footage. "I mean, we're over it and it's a new season and new USF Bulls."

"He just made an incredible play at an incredible time," junior right tackle Marcus Norman said of Houston receiver Courtney Lark, another critical fourth-and-24 figure. "We're gonna prevent it this year, make sure it doesn't happen again."

And so the sound bites go, essentially devoid of bile, bitterness or bold forecasts of atonement. At least in public settings, the Bulls successfully manage to allow any talk of fourth and 24 to ricochet right off them.

But to some degree, it must stick. Has to. They wouldn't be human if one of the most back-breaking plays of 2017 — which propelled Houston to an upset of the Bulls — didn't lurk somewhere in their psyche.

In a one-on-one setting, minutes after the Bulls' 38-30 victory against Connecticut, defensive end Greg Reaves acknowledged as much.

"I've seen it repeatedly," he said.

So have a lot of USF fans, in their sleep. The images remain as vivid — and vexing — as they did on that overcast Tampa afternoon nearly 365 days ago.

Trailing by three to the 17th-ranked Bulls in the waning moments, Houston was bereft of timeouts and viable options. Bulls nose tackle Deadrin Senat, part of a three-man rush, had just sacked Houston quarterback D'Eriq King for a 10-yard loss on third and 14, setting up fourth and 24 from the Cougars 37 with 1:07 to play.

"It's a dire situation," Cougars coach Major Applewhite said.

A 5-foot-11 sophomore who began his college career as a receiver, King had been inserted by Applewhite after Houston went three-and-out on its first two possessions. He fared no better initially as the Cougars failed to score in the first half, but USF managed only a touchdown in that same span.

Gradually, King and the Coogs found their rhythm, scoring on two of their first three second-half possessions. King tied the score at 21-all on a 3-yard scoring run (capping a 75-yard drive) with 6:20 to play, but senior Emilio Nadelman gave USF a three-point lead with a 30-yard field goal with 1:46 to go.

Now, after the Senat sack, desperation was staring King down.

The 10,000-yard passer at Manvel (Texas) High didn't blink.

"I don't remember what the play was called, but I know … everybody runs a go, then get the ball," Lark recalled. "It was just a straight route, get past the first-down sticks."

On fourth and 24, the Bulls rushed three again, with Reaves employed as a spy on King. As his pocket condensed, King rolled back and to his right, away from the line of scrimmage. With Reaves closing in, he unloaded a desperation heave off his back foot near his own 29.

It sailed toward the 6-foot-2 Lark, who was surrounded by no fewer than four Bulls, three of whom (Hoggins, Auggie Sanchez and Mike Hampton) leaped for the ball at the same time.

Somehow, Lark snagged it, landing at the USF 33 for a 30-yard gain. How did he come down with it?

"I don't even know," he said. "I haven't even watched the play. I don't even remember the play like that, 'cause I just move on. … But I guess it went through their hands and it just ended up in my body, and I just grabbed it. It was so quick that I don't even remember how it happened."

Five plays later, on third and 9 from the Bulls' 20, King rolled slightly to his left as pressure converged before tucking the ball and scampering for a touchdown.

Houston 28, USF 24. While the Bulls' conference title hopes weren't dashed that day, their aspirations of an undefeated season — a bona fide hope entering 2017 — were vanquished.

And the King era commenced. He has remained Houston's starter since, and enters Saturday's rematch as the nation's leader in points responsible for per game (27.7).

RELATED: Know the Foe: Houston

"I think he showed us what type of competitor he was," Applewhite said. "We could all watch it on tape, but the way he willed his team to win in the second half, specifically the fourth quarter…it was a lot of optimism coming off the field in terms of his career down the line and in the future."

On Saturday, another unbeaten Bulls team (7-0, 3-0) gets another crack at King, whose team (6-1, 3-0) is the only unbeaten squad in the American Athletic Conference's West Division. The stakes are glaring, the story line obvious.

"It's not a revenge game, I would say," Hoggins said. "It's just the next game on the schedule, and that's what we're sticking to."

Human nature says it sticks much deeper than that.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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