USF rallies to beat East Carolina, pulls within one win of bowl eligibility

Senior tight end Sean Price celebrates his first touchdown reception since 2012 in the first quarter of Saturday’s win over East Carolina.

There are times they make you scream at your television set.

There are times they make you scratch your head and wonder what the heck they’re thinking by lining up in a shotgun formation on fourth-and-short or calling a run play on third-and-long.

Your fingernails have probably been gnawed away from weeks of fourth-quarter anxiety attacks. Gameday necessities include chips, dip and a big ‘ol bottle of Pepto-Bismol to wash it down.

Get used to it. This USF football team is here to stay.

It might not have seemed this way the last few years — or even in late September. But after Saturday’s 22-17 come-from-behind victory at a soggy East Carolina, the question is no longer, “Can the downward spiral be stopped?” It’s now, “How high can they climb?”

“On the road, lead changes, they could have easily given up,” said coach Willie Taggart, whose team is now one win from securing bowl eligibility for the first time in five years. 

“But those guys stuck together and made the plays when the plays needed to be made.”

Did they ever.

This was a defining game for the young Bulls (5-4, 3-2). With victory within sight early, USF watched as the Pirates (4-6, 2-4) snatched it away time and time again, despite dominating them in nearly every facet of the game.

But the Bulls never backed down.

They took an early 9-0 lead on a safety and a 16-yard touchdown pass from Quinton Flowers to tight end Sean Price — his first since 2012. But things began to break down from there in the second quarter.

A 1-yard TD run by Flowers was negated by an illegal-formation penalty, forcing USF to settle for a 23-yard field goal attempt by careworn sophomore Emilio Nadelman. He shanked it. 

Then, after a personal foul by USF’s Tye Turner pinned USF back to a third-and-Fowler Avenue, D’Ernest Johnson coughed up the ball and the Pirates recovered at the 7-yard line. One play later, ECU quarterback James Summers was celebrating a touchdown. 

The Pirates took their first lead in the third quarter when Summers scored again after a 36-yard field goal by Nadelman to make it 14-12.

Both teams traded field goals, and with less than 5 minutes to play, USF needed to pull one last rabbit out of its hat.

Flowers did just that, finding receiver Rodney Adams amidst a broken coverage by the Pirates’ secondary for a 67-yard touchdown strike. Adams went untouched all the way into the end zone.

Kevin Bronson and Zack Bullock sealed it with a sack of Summers as time expired.

“If you want to win a championship, this is what champions do,” Taggart said. “They come through and they make the plays that needed to be made.”

Now, the Bulls find themselves firmly entrenched in the championship hunt, standing all alone in second place of the AAC’s Eastern division. USF must win each of its final three games and have top-seed Temple lose two. The Bulls host the Owls in a primetime matchup Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.

“We can talk about one win, or we can talk about three more wins for a really big goal and that’s the one we’re going after,” Taggart said. “We want to win the conference championship. That’s what our guys set out from the beginning. 

“We have a great opportunity. Two tough teams coming up at home and that’s the way we like it.”

This team deserves your support. For all the gray hairs they’ve added to your mane and second-half collapses you’ve cursed, go be a part of something special.

Sure, Saturday’s triumph wasn’t pretty at all. In all honesty, it was probably one of the ugliest victories the Bulls have had in quite some time. 

But if they’re hoisting that conference championship trophy at season’s end, will the attractiveness of the victories really matter?


That’s USF football. Keep that bottle of Pepto handy.