USF football’s seniors relishing first bowl bid

Senior OL Mak Djulbegovic said earning his first bowl trip was the perfect conclusion to his career. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Zack Bullock always tried to envision what the moment would be like when USF earned bowl eligibility. 

But when it finally happened after Saturday’s resounding 44-23 upset of No. 21 Temple at Raymond James Stadium, the fifth-year senior linebacker couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Pandemonium,” Bullock said, smiling. “I turned around and there was a lot of stuff going on. I saw people running around, and they were trying to jump on you. I don’t know what was going on. 

“It was a blur to me.”

For Bullock and the Bulls’ 18 other seniors, losing was all they knew before this season. 

Instead of spending Saturdays in November playing for postseason berth, games felt like a consolation prize. Decembers were spent in front of the television watching other teams.

Four straight senior classes came and went without concluding their college careers by raising a trophy or adding a ring to their fingers.

“It’s just like, ‘God, are we really that close? What do we have to do to take that next step?’” said Bullock, who has played under four different defensive coordinators. “You’re thinking that you’re always going to have an opportunity to go to bowls and win rings — you’re thinking that’s just a given. But you’ve got to earn that stuff. 

“It crosses your head every day like, ‘Will I ever get to go to a bowl game?’”

That wasn’t going to be the case this year. Even while sitting at 1-3 entering the meat of conference play just over a month ago, Bullock insisted there was never a doubt that corner could be turned. 

Eventually, everything just clicked. 

“I think everybody bought in,” Bullock said. “We bought into what coach is saying and to our philosophy and what we believe in both sides of the ball and just unselfishness as a team as a whole — just being unselfish.

“You’re playing for a bigger purpose. It’s not about you, it’s about winning at the end of the day.”

Senior offensive lineman Mak Djulbegovic called it “the ultimate dream.”

The Carrollwood Day alumnus had worked for four years to be awarded a scholarship in August after walking on during Skip Holtz’s second season in 2011.  

He fought through a struggle for playing time and a fractured wrist that had to be surgically repaired before finally landing a starting spot this year.

A bowl game to finish it all off? Well, that’s the proverbial icing on the cake.

“You want to go out on top. Everybody wants to go out being the best senior class they can be,” Djulbegovic said. “In the past, we’ve had some great leaders, and we’ve played, and we’ve always been a unit. We just haven’t had the success that we wanted in the past. But I think it’s that dream season. 

“You couldn’t write it up any better.”

For coach Willie Taggart, it’s a group that will always be cherished. Even through staff changes, the shuffling of schemes and seemingly endless low points, he said they never gave up. They never quit moving forward.

“You’re proud of them because they stuck it out,” he said. “They started to believe and were all in to what we were saying, and now they’re gonna reap some benefits from that. But they can leave here feeling good about themselves, knowing that they laid the foundation to getting the success back here at USF like it was before.”

At Friday’s game against Cincinnati, each senior will be personally honored in a pre-game ceremony for their contributions to the program. Family, friends and teammates will be by their sides.

For many in years past, this signified the end of a journey. For this group, there’s something more to play for.

And at least one more guaranteed game.

“I’m glad I went through the downs first, because it’s easier to stay humble and keep it in perspective because, oh, what a difference a year makes,” Bullock said. “Last year at this time, what was the team doing? Where was everybody at? Going through all that, going through all the frustration and all the heartbreak, it’s easier to stay humble now. …

“You’re just grateful that things are starting to turn around and you’re part of it.”