For USF senior defensive end Ryne Giddins, Senior Night against SMU was more than a game.
Though the game was lost Saturday, 16-6, Giddins left Raymond James Stadium a winner.
It started that morning in the team hotel with fellow senior defensive end Julius Forte.
“Are you ready?” Forte asked. “You know what I’m talking about, right?”
“Yeah,” Giddins said. “You’re talking about the proposal.”
As seniors were honored next to their loved ones on the field prior to kickoff, Giddins was saved for last. When he approached his long-time girlfriend Cierra Harris, his teammates swarmed. Giddins went down on one knee and asked her to marry him.
Harris has been through quite a lot with Giddins, most recently the passing of his mother.
Sabrina Giddins passed away Sept. 16 from uterine cancer. She was 58. Both Harris and Giddins were at her bedside as she passed.
Giddins said he’s marrying someone he truly loves and has been with for five or six years.
Harris said “yes” in front of 14,326 fans.
But Giddins and the Bulls (2-8, 2-4) had to refocus as kickoff with the Mustangs (5-5, 4-2) awaited. While his proposal may have warmed the hearts of fans and players, the outcome of the game was quite the opposite.
For USF, offensive struggles came early.
With an offensive drive of two rushes good for no more than three yards and an incomplete pass, the Bulls went three and out.
SMU senior quarterback Garrett Gilbert began his drive with six straight completions for 59 yards, but the Mustangs would end the drive settling for a field goal — USF’s defense held up.
That’s when fans were most excited and subsequently, just as let down.
From USF’s 2-yard line, senior running back Marcus Shaw burst through the middle of the line for an 80-yard run, but it was called back for an offensive holding penalty.
It was the first of 13 USF penalties.
That drive ended in another punt, but USF held the Mustangs to three points in the first half and headed into the locker room down 3-0.
To add to the Bulls’ chances of winning, Gilbert landed awkwardly while sliding and was helped off the field, leaving quarterback duties to freshman Neal Burcham.
The Bulls trailed by three points and faced a backup freshman quarterback. Odds looked to be in their favor.
Throughout the second half, USF attained nine penalties for 107 yards to make for 13 total penalties to SMU’s one. On top of that, freshman quarterback Mike White more than struggled.
Going 14-of-19 in the first half, White finished his night 19-of-34, throwing two interceptions against the worst-scoring defense in the American Athletic Conference. Shaw, who was an NCAA top rusher at one point in the season, couldn’t help and finished with 40 yards on 11 carries.
But what upset USF coach Willie Taggart the most was the Bulls’ wasting the biggest positive of the night.
“What’s frustrating is our defense played outstanding,” Taggart said. “And we just didn’t make the plays offensively to help that.”
Losing the penalty battle didn’t help either, Taggart said.
“That killed us,” he said. “Something isn’t right about that. Some of (the penalties) I didn’t agree with, but we just have to do a better job at not being in those positions so the refs can’t make those calls.”
Through a barrage of yellow flags and empty red seats in the student section, Giddins said it’s times like these where the “true fans” surface.
“It means a lot to see our true fans,” he said. “Toward the beginning of the season, we had a lot more people and then we started losing. This game right here, that’s when the true fans come out. We need more fans like them.”
Giddins continued to focus on the positives and not shift any blame on the struggling offense.
“We’re not here to bash our offense because they did this or that. We come out here as a team, that’s what we do,” he said.
Perhaps the offense’s only highlight of the game came late in the fourth quarter on a surprising 73-yard pass to junior receiver Andre Davis. That drive would end without points too.
It wasn’t until junior receiver Chris Dunkley returned a punt on a short field following SMU’s ensuing drive that USF would score.
Even though the Bulls failed on a two-point conversion, USF managed to escape what could have been their first shutout at home in school history.
Instead, USF finished with a 1-6 record at home — the worst in school history.
To the seniors, all Taggart could do was apologize.
“I’ve been here for a year, but I feel like I’ve know those guys forever,” Taggart said. “I feel like I let them down. I told them I love them, and I’ll always be there for them.”
Taggart and the Bulls face No.19 UCF on Friday at 8 p.m., a matchup the Bulls have never lost.
“I’ll do everything in my power to get the ‘W’ next week against Central Florida,” Taggart said. “The spotlight does strange things to people. Some show up and show out, and some people are like roaches — they run and hide. Hopefully our guys show up and show out.”