USF’s offense struggled to find its rhythm at the beginning of this season, particularly in the passing game. In its last game against then-ranked No. 10 Alabama, they recorded 87 passing yards.
But, in their conference opening 42-29 win against Rice at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, things seemed to finally fall into place.
The Bulls (2-2, 1-0 AAC) recorded 597 offensive yards against the Owls (2-2, 0-1 AAC), the 11th highest in program history and their most since they posted 646 in a 58-46 loss to UCF in Tampa in 2020.
They also secured their first FBS win since defeating Temple 34-14 on Oct. 23, 2021.
What was most encouraging was to see certain players find their confidence.
Head coach Alex Golesh said the first three games of the season had not been great for junior wide receiver Naiem Simmons. Prior to this game, he had seven receptions and 85 receiving yards this season.
However, during the practices leading up to Saturday, Golesh said he had been working to instill more confidence in the Wagner transfer.
Golesh said he set a goal for Simmons to record 150 receiving yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.
“It will pay you back. I promise you it will. And I told [Simmons] that, not because I knew we were just gonna throw it to him a bunch of times, but I just knew it was gonna pay it back,” Golesh said.
“When you pour into your process, whether it’s football or life… it’ll pay you back. It has for me, and it has for the elite teams I’ve been on. And his process paid him back today.”
Simmons totaled 272 receiving yards on eight receptions, breaking Tyre McCants’ USF program record of 227 set at UCF in 2017. He also broke the record for most receiving yards by a player at a Florida FBS program.
Before the Bulls’ offensive explosion, they took a conservative approach to begin the game in comparison to their last time out.
During last week’s matchup against the Crimson Tide, the Bulls attempted six fourth-down conversions and only converted on two.
Learning from this, USF ended its first two drives by settling for field goals.
With 2:35 remaining in the first half, redshirt freshman quarterback Byrum Brown threw a 53-yard pass to Simmons.
It would set up a rushing touchdown by junior running back K’wan Powell, ending a six-quarter streak in which the Bulls were unable to score a touchdown.
While the Bulls would end the second half down 14-13, the deficit could have potentially been greater had the Owls not missed two consecutive field goals in the second quarter.
During the break, Brown suggested the Bulls play more vertically to become more efficient offensively.
“I just made a suggestion to let the receivers run deep and [coach Golesh] listened,” Brown said.
“I’m glad he did.”
The Bulls started the second half with a four-play 75-yard scoring drive, capped off by a one-yard rush by Brown to take a 21-14 lead.
Looking to maintain this momentum on the following drive, Brown would complete a 59-yard pass to wide receiver Khafre Brown that would place them on the Owls’ seven yard line.
However, in hopes of extending the lead, senior running back Nay’Quan Wright would fumble the ball in an attempt to rush through the teeth of the defense.
Rice would take the field on South Florida’s 20-yard line and score an 80-yard touchdown to take the lead 21-20.
This swing could have been demoralizing to a Bulls offense that had just found its rhythm.
The next time they would take the field, they would rectify their mistake.
Brown would connect with Simmons on a 49-yard touchdown pass on second and four with two minutes remaining in the quarter.
The Bulls’ defense would force Rice to turn the ball over on downs.
USF’s offense would score another touchdown to begin the fourth quarter and go up 34-21 to seal its victory.
Golesh said he was proud of how his team, specifically the offense, responded during that stretch.
“I think we’re building there certainly to handle the adversity. And again, history teaches you things, but you don’t have to revert back to it. And like all we talked about is the next play. I’m so glad that we were able to just go play the next one,” he said.
“This week, the offense turned it over. The defense didn’t answer and then the offense flipped and answered. That’s called complimentary football…[I] wasn’t proud of what the heck was going on, but I was proud of the response for sure.”
Brown finished the game completing 22 of his 29 passes for 435 yards and two touchdowns. His performance ranks second all-time in program history.
Along with recording their first FBS win, the Bulls broke a 13-game losing streak against AAC opponents.
Even though the Bulls passed many milestones on Saturday, Golesh emphasized that they must remain focused as they begin their road trip next week against the Navy.
“I appreciate being 1-0, but I told our kids it doesn’t mean anything more or less than that. It just means our process was right enough to win a football game,” he said.
“I care about our process being right last week to be able to go and win, and that’s it. And then tomorrow, nobody cares. We gotta go 1-0 again. But..we’re gonna celebrate because we are 1-0 regardless of what happened in the past. It’s the next building block for us as a program.”