With a potential berth in their first conference championship game still within reach, the Bulls made a statement to the rest of the AAC in a 52-45 win over No. 22 Navy on Friday night in Raymond James Stadium.
With much to prove after a 46-30 loss to Temple last Friday, USF (7-2, 4-1) exploded out of the gate to lead the Midshipmen 28-0 after the 1st quarter behind a team-record 190 yards rushing in the opening quarter alone.
The Bulls went on to finish the night with 412 rushing yards — another program record.
Bulls’ junior quarterback Quinton Flowers set the pace for a near-perfect first half for USF with a 63-yard touchdown scamper less than two minutes into the game to give to Bulls an early 7-0 lead.
Coming off a game against the Owls in which USF’s defense gave up 319 yards on the ground, there was a clear effort from the start that the ‘Bull Sharks’ would not be beat by Navy’s triple-option rushing attack.
With the Bulls already scoring on their opening possession, USF swung the momentum heavily in its favor with a stop on 4th & 1 near midfield when senior linebacker Nigel Harris stopped Navy senior quarterback and local product Will Worth for a loss.
“It was big,” USF coach Willie Taggart said.
“Coming into the game, we knew if we won the toss, we wanted the ball because we knew they were going to try and hold it from us. They did us a favor and won the toss and gave it to us. It was great that we went down there and scored…but, it was really big that our defense got a stop there early on fourth down. I thought that was a huge momentum change early in the ball game that got us going.”
From there, the Bulls were off to the races.
Bulls running backs accounted for the game’s next two scores, with juniors D’Ernest Johnson and Marlon Mack each punching it in on USF’s next two drives.
Mack’s score, an 85-yard run right up the gut of the Navy (5-2, 4-1) defensive front, was the second-longest touchdown rush in USF history, behind Rafael William’s 86-yard score in 1998 against Valparaiso.
Already 11th in the country in rushing with 255.5 yards per game, the Bulls eclipsed that mark easily by halftime, out-rushing Navy 279-135 at the break to give the Bulls a 42-14 halftime lead.
Navy went on to make the game competitive after an abysmal start to outscore USF 34-10 in the second half.
The Midshipman, led by Worth, finished the game with 317 yards on the ground, the second week in a row the Bulls have given up over 300 yards rushing.
“They’re a team that’s not going to give up,” defensive captain and junior linebacker Auggie Sanchez said.
“Kudos to them, but, that’s where we need to get. We need to get to ‘if we are losing’ like they were, we need to give 100% like they did…we got to jump on them early today, and it helped us a lot.”
USF finished with three separate 100-yard rushers for the first time in program history, with Flowers (176), Mack (128) and Johnson (107) all going over the century mark.
The Bulls’ lone touchdown toss was to junior receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who now has a score in three straight games.
Flowers, who came into Friday 9th in the country in points responsible for, added to that mark with two rushing touchdowns and two through the air.
Following a bye week next weekend, the Bulls continue their AAC schedule with a meeting on the road with the Memphis Tigers on Nov. 12.