When Rodney Adams’ left knee collided with a scout-teamer during a practice drill Thursday, it appeared to be a foregone conclusion that USF would be without one of its top playmakers two days later at Connecticut.
Adams could hardly walk without pain; and when the Bulls arrived to East Hartford the next day, the nippiness of the early autumn air only made the junior receiver’s discomfort intensify with temperatures hovering in the low 50s during the daytime.
“When it first happened, I thought I wasn’t going to play,” Adams said.
Luckily for the Bulls, he thought wrong.
Not only did Adams play Saturday — even after admittedly grimacing through warmups with his anguish reaching a seven on a scale of 1 to 10 — the St. Petersburg native proved to be tougher than a truck-stop steak with a career performance in USF’s 28-20 triumph over the Huskies at Rentschler Field.
Adams set personal marks across the board with five catches for 118 yards and a record three touchdown receptions, joining Andre Davis (Tulsa, 2014) and Elgin Hicks (East Carolina, ‘03) as the only receivers in program history to accomplish the feat in a single game.
“Today was his day,” running back Marlon Mack told the Tampa Bay Times. “He was banged up, but he’s a tough guy. He fights through it.
“He showed his toughness.”
The Bulls (3-3, 1-1 AAC) are three wins from reaching bowl eligibility for the first time in five years with six games remaining. The victory over UConn (3-4, 1-1) also marked USF’s 100th since moving to Division I-A in 2000.
“When adversity hit, we just looked it in the face and said, ‘Bring it on,’” coach Willie Taggart said. “We kept playing, and I’m really proud of our guys.”
Things didn’t start well for the Bulls as the Huskies dominated virtually all facets of the game in the first quarter. But it didn’t take long for USF’s fortunes to turn.
Four minutes into the second quarter, sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers found Adams on a short pass over the middle. Adams then outpaced several UConn defenders on his way to a 44-yard touchdown.
Then, after UConn hit a 27-yard field goal before halftime and quarterback Bryant Shirreffs ran for a 36-yard score in the third quarter to take a four-point lead, Taggart turned to his bag of tricks for the second consecutive game to give his team an advantage they never relinquished.
From the UConn 29-yard line, Flowers handed it off on the right side to running back D’Ernest Johnson, who stopped at the hash and chucked a long pass into the end zone, where Adams leaped over cornerback John Green for the touchdown. USF utilized a reverse flea-flicker that resulted in a touchdown during last Saturday’s 45-24 win over Syracuse.
“It was a play we’d been working on for a little minute,” Adams said. “The play was a perfect opportunity to call it and it was a touchdown. It happened perfectly.”
Despite re-aggravating his injury after getting the back of his knee “smacked” at some point in the game, Adams added another TD late in the fourth quarter on a 44-yard pass from Flowers, who finished 11 of 15 passing for 157 yards. He was also intercepted twice.
Mack (13 carries, 113 yards) recorded his third straight 100-yard rushing game, becoming the first Bull to do so since Andre Hall in 2005.
“We told our guys earlier in the week that it was going to be a tough ballgame,” Taggart said. “It was going to take our best effort in order to win.”
USF’s attention now turns to Saturday’s home game against one-win SMU, which is coming off a bye-week. A victory there will give the Bulls a winning record in October for the first time since 2011.
But the Bulls have their sights on something much greater than that.
“We’re a team on a mission,” Adams said. “We’re looking to win our side of the conference, we’re looking to go to a bowl game, and we’ve got a point to prove.
“People are calling us underdogs and we don’t believe we’re underdogs. We believe we’re one of the top-notch teams in this conference, and that’s what we’re playing like.”