Defense shines, USF becomes bowl eligible with 33-3 win over Cincinnati

USF is now 12-9 in Homecoming games, winning its last three. Auggie Sanchez (above) recorded six tackles and had an interception for a touchdown Saturday. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/GOUSFBULLS.COM

It wasn’t the prettiest of wins for the Bulls, but it was a win nonetheless.

USF’s offense struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone Saturday night, but its defense held the Bearcats to three points in the No. 16 Bulls’ 33-3 homecoming win over Cincinnati, making the Bulls the first team in the AAC to become bowl eligible.

While the Bulls’ offense only turned two of its five trips inside the Bearcats’ 20-yard line into touchdowns, the defense never let Cincinnati inside its 20-yard line and held the Bearcats to 95 rushing yards .

“I think they had under 100 yards rushing,” senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez said. “That’s big, if you can limit somebody’s rush game then that’s a big takeaway. A big component of their game gone.”

Sanchez intercepted a pass on the last play of the first half and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown. The score extended the Bulls’ lead to 23-3 at halftime and brought the actual attendance of 38,121 to their feet.

The touchdown proved critical in swinging the game’s momentum in favor of the Bulls, who were only leading the Bearcats (2-4, 0-2) 9-3 two minutes prior.

In addition to being a momentum swinger, it helped preserve USF’s streak of games with 30-plus points scored. Now having surpassed 30 points for 23 games in a row, USF is tied with the 2011-12 Oregon team for the most consecutive games in NCAA history.

With the offense only scoring 10 second-half points, the Bulls wouldn’t have eclipsed the 30-point mark if it weren’t for scoring help via Sanchez’s pick six.

“I just remember I had come in, I saw a hole open up and I turned and I saw a ball floating a little bit,” sophomore linebacker Greg Reaves said. “Then Auggie picked it off. As tired as I was, I thought ‘man, we have got to get Auggie in the end zone again.’ I think he made a hell of a play, a great cutback and of course, he got into the end zone.”

The interception brought USF’s total for the season to a nation-leading 15. For Sanchez, the pick six was his second in the Bulls’ season. He caught and returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown against East Carolina in the Bulls’ last game.

Not to be forgotten in the midst of a dominant defensive effort, quarterback Quinton Flowers rushed for a touchdown and threw for 184 yards with no interceptions. In the first quarter, he scrambled for an 11-yard gain that pushed him over 3,000 career rushing yards as a Bull.

Flowers also led the team in rushing yards with 85 on Saturday, but it was the offense’s inability to get into the end zone and the 14 penalties called against the team that Strong noted the most.

“Penalties, execution, not playing well — we were sloppy all around,” Strong, who was visibly upset postgame, said. “We’ve got to play much better than what we played tonight, because we’re a better football team than what we showed tonight. We can’t just go out there and kind of just go through the motions thinking we’re better than what we actually are.”

The Bulls, now 6-0, will have a chance to go 7-0 for the first time in program history Saturday when they travel to play Tulane (3-3, 1-1).

“Anytime you win, it’s hard to get a victory in college football,” Reaves said. “I felt like he (Strong) might’ve been upset. He felt like we digressed a little bit (this week.)”

For that coveted 7-0 start to come, however, the Bulls will have to play at a higher level than they did against Cincinnati. 

“Sometimes after a victory, everybody wants to be all jolly,” Strong said. “You can’t always be jolly. We didn’t play up to our standards, and we can play much better. It’s great that we got to 6-0 though … But we haven’t arrived yet.”