TALLAHASSEE — Just for a moment, forget what the scoreboard read at Doak Campbell Stadium when the clock hit zero in the fourth quarter Saturday.
Forget Dalvin Cook torching USF’s defense for one of the best performances by any Florida State running back.
Forget sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers — in just his third start — underthrowing a pass toward 6-foot-5 tight end Elkanah “Kano” Dillon in the end zone and into the mitts of FSU defensive back Marquez White for an early interception.
Instead, rewind back to halftime. There was USF, the 29-point underdogs, tied 7-7 with one of the finest teams in the nation.
Aside from a 74-yard touchdown run by Cook in the first quarter, the Bulls’ defense had played so well, there were probably some wondering whether names like Selvie and Pierre-Paul had snuck their way back onto the line.
The offense seemed to have found its rhythm, too. Flowers thoroughly outplayed his counterpart Everett Golson, completing 50 percent of his passes with one touchdown. Golson, meanwhile, had completed just 1 of 9, throwing his lone reception at the feet of Travis Rudolph.
Maybe this was just an aberration. After all, it was a morning kickoff — ‘Noles coach Jimbo Fisher probably hadn’t had his coffee yet.
But maybe it was something more than that.
Perhaps this was USF inching closer to that faraway light at the end of the tunnel against the nation’s ninth-ranked team, and constructing some personal confidence along the way.
“I told our guys this week, ‘Don’t be surprised if we are in this game in the second half. Don’t be surprised at all,’” Bulls coach Willie Taggart said. “Most teams in our situation, they’ve been in the game and they are surprised they are in the game.
“Sure enough, our guys were there. We weren’t surprised.”
College football is a cruel game. There aren’t supposed to be any moral victories, especially in a 34-14 defeat. But considering what the Bulls went through during the six days leading up to this game, room can be made for an exception.
Last Sunday morning, hours after a long-awaited laugher against Florida A&M, they awoke to the news that their former teammate, Elkino Watson, had been murdered at 3 a.m. in a stabbing outside an Ybor City nightclub.
They wept for Watson during a memorial service Tuesday night at the Sun Dome and wore his initials on their helmets in remembrance Saturday.
One could probably conclude it was the most difficult week the program had ever experienced in nearly two decades. But that wasn’t going to be used as an excuse to the Bulls. They showed up to play.
“It was a beautiful thing in that first half,” said senior husky Jamie Byrd, who wrote “Believe” and “#53” on his eye-black for Watson. “To see us all swarming to the ball just working as one defense, that’s gonna carry on to the next game and the next couple games after that. I think we showed a lot of improvement.”
Sure, the second half didn’t go according to plan. Cook wrapped up his day with two more touchdowns and 266 yards — the most allowed by any USF defense. Golson, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, rebounded to finish 14 of 26 for 163 yards and a touchdown. Even Roberto Aguayo got his licks in, hitting a pair of field goals to cement himself as the most accurate kicker in NCAA history.
But USF never gave up. It grew up.
As the Bulls headed toward their tunnel to exit the field after the final whistle, eager to greet them was a small section of green and gold-clad spectators who had made the four-hour trip to the panhandle.
They clapped and cheered. Some reached over the railing and extended their palms for high-fives as the team passed through below.
Even in a loss, they were proud. This team should be, too.
“There’s a lot of good things on the tape for our guys … and we’re gonna learn from it,” Taggart said. “I think we have ourselves a good football team, and we’re gonna learn from this and move on and continue to get better.”
If Saturday was any indication, you can bet they will.