Worth the wait: USF upsets Syracuse for first win over a Power-Five opponent since 2011

USF sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers and junior receiver Rodney Adams embrace after Flowers rushed for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 45-24 victory against Syracuse.

He wanted to savor every second of it.

Starting with the student section in the north end zone of Raymond James Stadium, USF coach Willie Taggart walked along the wall behind his players, shaking hands and eliciting cheers from those that rode through the storm with him. 

He continued along the sideline, near the tunnel and the south end zone, too. There were smiles. There were chants. Everyone wanted their piece of a moment two-and-a-half years in the making:

Taggart’s long-awaited signature triumph — a 45-24 drubbing of Syracuse, which made the 1,200-mile trip to Tampa fresh off a bye-week with a full bill of health.

For years, the Bulls were lost in games like these. When it came time to put a bow on potential big victories such as UCF in 2013, East Carolina last October and Florida State and Memphis this season, USF had bowed out, collapsing late and watching its glimmer of hope fade to black.

That wasn’t going to happen on Saturday afternoon.

Criticized for his ultra-conservative play-calling in the loss to Memphis the week before, Taggart and the Bulls (2-3) loosened the reins, pulling out all the bells and whistles for its crucial Homecoming matchup with the Orange. There were an abundance of passing plays, a consistently stout defense and even a reverse flea-flicker that resulted in a touchdown.

USF’s must-win game evolved into must-see TV.

Raise your hand if you saw that coming.

“All the work they put in this offseason and summertime together, and not to have the success that they wanted early in the season, ordinary people would’ve quit,” Taggart said. “But our guys kept fighting, they kept coming back to practice excited and ready to get better. 

“That’s what extraordinary people do.”

As unconventional as a win over a Power-Five team is for the Bulls — their first since defeating Notre Dame in Sept. 2011 — the way they did it was even more out of character.

It started with the offense. Despite telling reporters in his Tuesday media session that he would not shift away from his usual run-first approach, Taggart allowed sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers to air it out, seemingly, at will.

Sure, the combination of Marlon Mack, D’Ernest Johnson, Darius Tice and Flowers accounted for 276 rushing yards, but USF also had even more success through the air. Taggart tried bubble screens, deep passes and more attempts on first downs — it all worked. 

Flowers finished 15 of 22 passing for 259 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

“I told coach, ‘Hey, just give me a shot. Just give me a chance. Let me just go out there and play my game,’” Flowers said. “He called me up to his office (on Wednesday) and he said, ‘Hey, I’m going to let you go. I’m going to let the offense go and I want to see what you guys can do with it.’ And we came out there and executed.”

USF saw the best of that execution in the third quarter after holding a 10-3 lead at halftime. The Bulls emerged by scoring in only five plays — a 25-yard touchdown by Mack — on their first possession of the second half. 

Then, after forcing the Orange to punt from midfield and picking up a quick first down on a 28-yard pass from Flowers to Adams, Taggart dialed up arguably the wildest call of his tenure — a reverse flea-flicker.

The Bulls had put it in the playbook as part of their new up-tempo scheme, but only worked on it twice during the week of practice before Saturday. It turned out that’s all they needed.

Flowers took a shotgun snap and handed the ball off to Mack on his right side. Mack then pitched it to Adams on a reverse — running to his left — where he avoided a hustling Syracuse defender before lobbing it back to Flowers. After planting his feet, Flowers heaved a crisp pass toward the end zone where Bronson was waiting for the 42-yard touchdown.

It was a seamless call at the perfect time, giving USF a 21-point lead – its largest against a Division I-A opponent under Taggart.

“I told the receivers, all of them, ‘We’re not going to leave anything on the play-call sheet,” Taggart said. “‘We’re going run it all and you guys take care of business, play like you know you’re capable of and how we know you’re capable of playing,’ and they did that.”

The Orange rallied late in the third with two quick scores to pull within seven points. But the Bulls weren’t going to break, pulling away in the fourth quarter with another pair of touchdowns.

Senior defensive end Eric Lee sacked Orange quarterback Eric Dungey once and had two tackles for loss. Senior husky Jamie Byrd, a Pasco alumnus, added an interception.

“They were going to fight,” Taggart said. “I know they weren’t going to give up. … We just kept talking about, ‘Let’s finish, let’s finish. Let’s step on their throat. Let’s learn to step on peoples’ throat when we have them down.”

The Bulls needed this one, but one might argue that Taggart needed it more with calls for his job growing louder as the losses piled up.

For now, the temperature of that hot seat has been cooled a few degrees as USF prepares for its next conference clash at Connecticut.

For now, the Bulls will savor this one — every second of it.

“It feels really good to get the win for (Taggart),” Flowers said. “A lot of people were downing Coach T. A lot of people were saying the wrong things about Coach T, but the offense and the team always says, ‘We’ve got your back. Don’t worry about that.’ 

“We’ve just got to stay in our cocoon. That’s all we can do.”

By the numbers

5 – Scoring drives of 75 or more yards for USF on Saturday. The Bulls had four all season coming in.

7 – Third downs converted in 10 attempts by USF, its best percentage of the season. 

45 – Points scored by USF, the most against a Division I-A team under Willie Taggart.