For reeling USF, a win Friday can atone for much

An upset of No. 8 UCF could help salvage an otherwise disappointing season for the Bulls.
USF's Mazzi Wilkins (right) attempts to wrap up UCF tailback Greg McCrae during last season's game in Orlando. UCF won, 49-42. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
USF's Mazzi Wilkins (right) attempts to wrap up UCF tailback Greg McCrae during last season's game in Orlando. UCF won, 49-42. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Nov. 19, 2018

TAMPA — Tuesday marks the one-month anniversary of USF's last victory. The team's bowl projections and body language have become equally bothersome. Twitter discussions about Bulls coaches have reached alarming levels of toxicity.

"We just haven't put together a complete game in all three phases," coach Charlie Strong said Monday, repeating what has become a tagline for the season.

Yet despite the on-field mediocrity and off-field vitriol, an opportunity remains for these Bulls (7-4, 3-4) to become memorable, historic, perhaps even endearing.

A triumph Friday against No. 8 UCF (10-0, 7-0) would afford them such status, and salvage an otherwise dreary season.

In a year when they failed to snag that elusive first conference title or secure a bowl trip anywhere near New Year's Day, the Bulls still can notch what would go down as arguably the biggest win in program history.

"This game means everything," said cornerback Mazzi Wilkins, a Plant High alumnus and one of 18 seniors who will be recognized Friday.

"We have very high expectations for ourselves, so I don't know if it can completely (save the year), but it would definitely heal a lot of the wounds that happened. It would make us feel a little bit better about ourselves."

Wilkins is downplaying the euphoria a win Friday would elicit. A little bit better? Imagine the spontaneous celebration that would ensue on the Raymond James Stadium field if USF were to prevail. Imagine the radiance emitting from players' faces as they hoist the "War on I-4" trophy. Imagine the media buzz.

If it could snap UCF's 23-game streak, USF would momentarily become a national darling, days after ESPN and College GameDay spent a weekend fawning over the Knights.

"It would mean a lot, especially for this program," senior defensive end Josh Black said. "Just to come mess up their season, put a nice little cap on our season."

Of course, bringing that scenario to fruition likely will require more than a complete game. It may call for a perfect one.

Related: Knights rout Bearcats in 'War on I-4' precursor

Notoriously slow starters for most of the season, the Bulls must seize early momentum (see Tyre McCants vs. UCF, 2017). Offensively, they must be diverse and consistent, especially on first down.

And they absolutely, positively can't give up explosive plays (of 20 or more yards) to a team that averages nearly nine of them per contest.

"It's a lot of home run balls for them," Strong said. "We can't allow them to take the ball and pitch it over our head for 60- and 70-yard plays."

To be sure, the prerequisites are many. But the payoff would be enormous. Instead of ending a season demoralized, these Bulls in a sense could be immortalized.

"I know personally with myself, I was a little disappointed (with the season)," Wilkins said. "But I know this game would definitely make it better, and I know it would make my brothers feel happy as well."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

Bulls vs. the best
A look at USF's record against Division I-A teams ranked in the top eight at the time of the game
at No. 2 Oklahoma (09/28/02) L, 14-31
at No. 7 West Virginia (11/25/06) W, 24-19
vs. No. 5 West Virginia (09/28/07) W, 21-13
vs. No. 8 Cincinnati (10/15/09) L, 17-34
at No. 8 Florida (09/11/10) L, 14-38
vs. No. 4 FSU (09/29/12) L, 17-30

Up next
USF vs. No. 8 UCF, Raymond James Stadium, 4:15 Friday
TV/radio: ESPN; 820-AM, 98.3-FM