On paper, the South Florida football team was outgained and outplayed by the Connecticut Huskies on Sunday. There is one thing, however, that the Bulls weren’t — outscored.
With a record-setting special teams performance and a defense that pulled a 180 last week’s 49-16 drubbing from Rutgers, the Bulls (7-4) defeated the Huskies (7-4) 17-13.
“That was a good win,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “I thought the guys did a really good job.”
The Bulls got things started quickly, with sophomore wide receiver Dontavia Bogan returning the game’s opening kickoff 64 yards to the Connecticut 30-yard line. The Bulls took a 7-0 lead five plays later with a touchdown by Ben Williams.
“Unbelievable, just unbelievable,” Williams said of scoring a touchdown on senior night. “It’s a great feeling.”
Bogan set USF up deep in Huskies territory again with 28 seconds left in the first half, returning a kick 71 yards to the Connecticut 20, but junior quarterback Matt Grothe threw an interception that killed any chance at points.
“The kickoff return was great,” Leavitt said. “I thought our special teams played extremely well. I thought we did some really good things.”
With his returns, Bogan set school records for highest return average in a game (67.5), most returns in a season (25) and most return yards in a season (652).
“Our kickoff return team did an amazing job blocking,” Bogan said. “I saw the holes, but the kicker slowed me up a couple times. They were still good returns though, because they set the offense up in good field position.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Gregory — who said it’s an honor to watch and coach his son, senior quarterback Grant Gregory — appreciated Bogan’s effort.
“He did such a great job,” he said. “He’s become one of the top kick returners in this league.”
The Bulls went up 10-0 in the second quarter, but Connecticut tied the game with a 43-yard touchdown pass. Sophomore running back Jamar Taylor scored early in the fourth quarter to put USF up 17-10.
“The senior line opened up some big holes, and I didn’t really get touched,” Taylor said. “It was just me and the safety, so I did my best to beat him — for the seniors and the team.”
Junior quarterback Matt Grothe — who had 175 yards of total offense and no touchdowns — played with an ankle that was not 100 percent, Leavitt said.
“His ankle was pretty rough,” he said. “We ended up running him more than we wanted to tonight. He’s tough.”
Bogan was impressed with Grothe’s toughness.
“You know, Matt’s a warrior, so he’s going to play through no matter what,” he said. “He did a great job.”
Connecticut pulled to within four points and had the ball with 1:30 left in the game, but a sack by senior defensive end Jarriett Buie ended any chance Connecticut had at a last-second win.
“That was a great effort by the front four tonight,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “The seniors have done a great job of leading this team.”
Senior linebacker Tyrone McKenzie said the win helped the morale in the locker room for a team that hadn’t led a game since the Bulls lost to Louisville on Oct. 25.
“It’s great,” he said. “The guys were ready to get back out there and hit the field. It was just great.”
Though the Bulls won, the team made a lot of the mistakes that led to its three-game losing streak.
The Huskies outgained USF in total yardage (258-247) and had five more first downs (16-11).
USF had three dropped passes, 10 penalties for 78 yards and one turnover.
Even with the miscues, the Bulls defense played like a different team than the one that gave up 49 points and 421 yards to Rutgers on Nov. 15.
USF held Connecticut running back Donald Brown to 96 yards, 61 below his season average. It was the second time this season Brown was held under 100 yards.
“We just got back to being the old type of guys that we’ve been around here for so long,” Burnham said. “There’s no magic formula, I don’t think. We just put a game plan together and they
With the win, USF solidified a bowl berth for the fourth consecutive season.
“I’m speechless,” Grothe said. “It’s exciting. This was a big-time game and we stepped up on offense, the defense shut them out. That was one of the best running backs in the nation out there tonight, and our defense made him look average. It was great.”
Senior safety Carlton Williams — who tied the USF record for career starts (45) — said that winning his final game at Raymond James was a great feeling because it ended the 29-day span during which USF didn’t win a game.
“We didn’t even realize how long it’s been,” Williams said. “This feeling is just great. This team gave unbelievable effort, and I’m just overwhelmed. It’s senior night and I got to win in front of our fans here in Tampa. I feel good.”