Coach Skip Holtz knew his team needed a big win to build morale heading into the final weekend. Instead, they got a program changing one.
A year after beating then-No. 17 Florida State in Tallahassee, the Bulls came back in the fourth quarter and knocked off Miami, another one of the state’s proclaimed “Big 3,” in their 23-20, thrilling overtime win at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“This is the level we aspire to be,” Holtz said. “We’ve talked about the ‘Big 3′ in the state of Florida, and Florida, Florida State and Miami have all won conference championships. They’ve all won national championships. This is the level we want to compete at.”
For starters, the Bulls were an 11.5-point underdog to the Hurricanes, who hadn’t lost to USF in two previous meetings.
But USF, still searching for its first Big East title, has shown it can play with the traditional state powers and go 2-2 in four games against the “Big 3” in the last two games.
“It’s a huge step in the right direction for our program,” said junior safety Jerrell Young, who intercepted Miami quarterback Jacory Harris with five seconds left in the game, forcing overtime.
“Just being in the backyard and knowing I grew up here playing football all my life – it feels special to give back to the Tampa Bay area. That’s why I didn’t choose to go anyone else but South Florida.”
There wasn’t a shortage of storylines, but perhaps the biggest one was the play of true freshman quarterback Bobby Eveld, who replaced an injured Daniels in the second half and led a game-tying drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
Also grabbing headlines was the USF defense, which made key defensive stops to help preserve wins late against Cincinnati, Rutgers and Louisville earlier this season. That trend continued with Young’s interception and a big hold on Miami’s first possession of overtime, when USF didn’t give up a first down and forced Miami into a field goal attempt.
The performance was “huge,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said.
“Huge. Kids performed well,” he said. “We dialed up some pretty good things that we had been able to hold onto. There wasn’t much we were able to hold onto throughout the game but (the defense) was able to hold onto what I showed them until the last drive. And our kids executed pretty daggone well.”
What made the feeling of beating Miami even better for the Bulls were late-game dramatics. After sophomore Demetris Murray scored the game-winning touchdown in the first overtime, USF players sprinted onto the field and celebrated for several seconds until replay officials sought to determine whether the ball broke the plane of the goalline.
The call was upheld, only delaying USF’s night-long celebration for a few minutes.
“Murray said he got in. We believed him,” Young said. “All I can do is thank God. We’re blessed to be playing for the NCAA and representing the Big East.”
For Snyder, that blessing couldn’t have come at a better time.
“For us to come in and get a win on the road like this, it’s gotta do nothing but help, from a confidence standpoint,” he said. “After last week’s loss (to Pittsburgh), we needed something like this to happen. It feels good.”
USF, a program still searching for its championship mojo, took another small step in the right direction.
“Everybody always talks about the Big 3 – Florida, Miami and Florida State,” senior linebacker Jacquian Williams said. “We just let them know that we’re just as good as anybody else.”