The Bulls returned to action Friday night after missing last week’s game against UConn due to the threat of Hurricane Irma.
Facing off against its first and only Power 5 conference opponent in the Illinois Fighting Illini, USF saw this game as an opportunity for validation.
The game at Raymond James was played in front of an announced 35,000 fans in the stadium along with a national audience in USF’s first ESPN game of the season.
“Any time you get a national audience and a Big Ten opponent, it helps you,” head coach Charlie Strong said. “The way we played, it was a really good, solid game with big numbers.”
By far the Bulls best offensive outing of the young 2017 campaign, USF totaled 680 yards en route to their 47-23 victory.
Led by senior quarterback Quinton Flowers’ 386 total yards and five total touchdowns (280 passing yards, 106 rushing yards), the Bulls were finally able to reignite their explosive offense.
“When you have a leader in your quarterback and the things he does, he doesn’t say anything he just goes about his work and guys just follow him,” Strong said.
Maybe the most important moment in the game, late in the first half, Illinois running back Mike Epstein ran for a 45-yard TD that brought the Fighting Illini within seven points of the Bulls. After getting the ball back with approximately two minutes left in the half, USF sprinted down the field.
Flowers threw a 32-yard pass to Deangelo Antoine that brought USF to the Illinois six with only eight seconds remaining. On the following play, the Bulls’ offense didn’t develop how they drew it up, but Flowers scrambled and ran the six yards for the TD that boosted the Bulls’ lead to 14 entering the half.
“I did the best thing and that was use my legs like I always do and we came out with a touchdown,” Flowers said.
Strong was a fan of Flower’s improvisation to close the half.
“You don’t coach that at all,” Strong said. “It just makes the coach look good.”
Coming into the second half, USF never let up as they scored 24 more points and put up 300 additional yards.
Although Illinois has been at the bottom of the Big Ten ranks the past few years, Flowers found motivation in the match up against USF’s only Power 5 conference opponent.
“They (Power 5 games) mean a lot to me,” Flowers said. “A lot of people doubted me coming out of high school, a lot of people doubted me coming into college, a lot of people still do.”
Flowers was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, but as an athlete, not as a quarterback. USF was the only major program that allowed Flowers the opportunity to continue his quarterback career.
“I’m just going to go out there and be myself,” Flowers said.
The Bulls’ senior quarterback began the year on the watch list for the 2017 Heisman Award — the award handed out to the best player in college football. However, due to the team’s slow start in the first two games, Flowers began to drop out of the conversation.
“At the end of the day I just do what’s best, I don’t care about what people say,” Flowers said.
His performance in Friday’s game may have brought him back into the conversation.
Flowers has become known for keeping plays alive, and he may just be doing the same thing with his Heisman candidacy.
“With Quinton Flowers, you have to stay alive,” running back Darius Tice said. “That guy is amazing, he does stuff on video games. He surprises me every day.”
Flowers joins only Louisville quarterback and reigning Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson as the only two quarterbacks to be in the top 50 in both rushing and passing yards.
“He deserves credibility and respect,” Tice said. “No doubt he belongs in that conversation. He deserves to be in the Heisman talk.”