BIRMINGHAM, AL – The ball sat on the Bulls’ own eight-yard line with the Gamecocks needing one more score on fourth down to force a second overtime period. It was defensive captain and linebacker Auggie Sanchez that spoke as his entire team stood around him.
“I told the guys to be great for one play,” Sanchez said. “If we were great for one play, we would win the game and we were great that one play and that’s all that it took. Came down to all those plays and it only took one.”
The Bulls rode the momentum of a record-breaking, 10-win regular season to hold on and defeat the South Carolina Gamecocks 46-39 in overtime of the Birmingham Bowl.
Making their first visit to Legion Field since their first bowl game appearance and victory in program history over East Carolina in the 2006 PapaJohns.com Bowl, USF (11-2, 7-1) jumped out to an early lead after cornerback Ronnie Hoggins intercepted South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley on the Gamecocks (6-7, 3-5) opening possession.
The Bulls then responded with the first of three rushing touchdowns by junior quarterback Quinton Flowers, converting on a “swinging gate” 2-point conversion to give USF an early 8-0 lead.
Flowers would again find his way into the endzone on a 10-yard scamper that gave USF a 15-0 lead at the end of the opening frame.
Four plays into the second quarter, South Carolina got on the board after Bentley found wide receiver Hayden Hurst for a 25-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 15-7.
Following Flowers’ third rushing touchdown that pushed the score to 22-7, the Bulls and Gamecocks traded touchdowns to go into the half with USF leading 29-14, a Birmingham Bowl record for points in half for the Bulls.
South Carolina came out and scored on their opening possession of the second half, as wide receiver Deebo Samuel took an 11-yard screen pass in for a Gamecocks touchdown.
Only able to counter with a Brandon Behr 21-yard field goal, the “Bullshark” defense once again put their stamp on the Bulls’ fourth bowl win in program history as junior cornerback Tajee Fullwood intercepted an errant Jake Bentley pass and take it back 47 yards for a Bulls touchdown.
The pick-six was only USF’s second of the year and only third defensive touchdown all season.
The score extended the Bulls’ lead to 39-21, their largest lead of the contest.
Elliot Fry knocked down a 43-yard field goal for South Carolina to cut the lead to 15 as the fourth quarter began.
The Gamecocks then took advantage of Flowers’ lone interception, with Bentley finding wide receiver Bryan Edwards for a 9-yard touchdown to make it a one-possession game.
Forcing USF to punt on their ensuing drive, South Carolina appeared prime to tie the game with as the ball sat on the Bulls’ 8-yard line with 4:19 to go in the ball game.
However, the Bulls’ defense would once again make another key defensive play in a tight situation as Fullwood would force a fumble on the 1-yard line to stop the Gamecocks temporarily from tying the game.
Unable to capitalize on the turnover, the Bulls punted the ball once again to South Carolina with 2:45 remaining in the fourth.
On the final drive of regulation, the Gamecocks would finally even the score at 39 after running back AJ Turner punched it in from one yard out and Jake Bentley finding tight end Hayden Hurst in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion.
With the momentum seemingly all in favor of South Carolina, the Bulls would loose the overtime coin toss to give them the ball to open the extra period.
Just as it has all season long, the Bulls’ “Gulf Coast” offense struck quickly, as Flowers found tight end Kano Dillion in the endzone on their first play of overtime.
With the Bulls up seven, the Gamecocks would get the ball down to the USF 8-yard line.
Facing fourth down from the six yard line, the “bullsharks” would come together for one final stop as defensive lineman Mike Love would strip-sack Bentley to give the Bulls their first bowl win since 2010.
The win is also USF’s first victory over a Southeastern Conference opponent since 2007, when the Bulls would upset 13th ranked Auburn on the road.
Not only does USF leave Birmingham with a trophy to bring back to Tampa, the Bulls set a number of Birmingham Bowl records including points in a half, most points in a game, and total offensive plays (80) to win the first overtime game in the bowl’s 11-year history.
Flowers, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, set records as well in total points (18), touchdowns (5), and most individual rushing touchdowns (3).
The junior was able to accomplish this and continue to lead the Bulls to the win after sustaining a laceration on his left hand in the third quarter.
For interim head coach T.J. Weist, who hands the reins over to newly named head coach Charlie Strong following the victory, summed up the importance of the win for not only himself, but for USF football going forward.
“It’s the best win I’ve ever had,” Weist said in the post-game press conference.
“It’s the greatest experience for me, to be with this team and this staff. To set this kind of record and have a bowl win like that, there’s nothing better.”