Jacksonville Sports Day

USF: Bulls Get Record 11th Win in Birmingham Bowl OT Thriller

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Big-time performances on both sides of the ball propelled No. 22/25 USF to its record-setting 11th win of the season in overtime at the Birmingham Bowl.

Quinton Flowers started overtime with a scrambling, 25-yard touchdown pass to Elkanah Dillon and the USF defense finished by posting its season-best fifth takeaway in a 46-39 triumph over South Carolina.

In the Bulls’ first bowl win since 2010, the USF defense registered three takeaways inside the red zone at historic Legion Field.

“Our guys really came through in the end, especially our defense. We’re unbelievably proud of every guy, just how we finished and ended up with 11 wins. It’s just unbelievable,” said interim head coach T.J. Weist.

USF (11-2) added to its program record season wins total while increasing its nation-leading streak of 30-plus point games to 17 with a Birmingham Bowl record 46 points.

Flowers earned game MVP honors by matching his career high with three touchdown runs, also a bowl record, and accounting for five total touchdowns and 366 total yards, his record ninth 300-plus total yard game of the year. The junior from Miami rushed for a game-high 105 yards, matching Marlon Mack with a USF record five straight 100-yard games, and completed 23 of 32 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns.

South Carolina (6-7) scored 18 unanswered points to tie the game in regulation before USF’s defense made the biggest play of the game. With the Gamecocks looking at fourth-and-6 at the USF 8 in overtime, junior defensive end Mike Love sacked Jake Bentley and Khalid McGee sealed the win with his second fumble recovery of the game.

USF improved to 10-1 all-time in overtime games, 2-0 in bowl games, as they played their first since a 2011 overtime loss at Rutgers.

McGee’s first fumble recovery at the Bulls’ 1 preserved the 39-31 lead with 4:19 remaining in the game. Junior safety Tajee Fullwood caused the fumble and also had a big 47-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter that gave the Bulls a 39-21 lead.

Devin Abraham made his first interception of the season in the first quarter and sophomore safety Jaymon Thomas recovered a fumble at the USF 2 in the third quarter. USF totaled 11 takeaways in the final three games of the season to finish with 26 on the year.

USF improved to 5-3 in bowl games as it began its eighth postseason appearance making big plays in two phases of the game.

“I think we came out with energy. I think we kind of felt like there was a little disrespect for us. We were the team coming in here with 10 wins and they were the SEC team,” said USF Linebacker Auggie Sanchez. They kept asking us, ‘How can you guys keep up with the SEC?’ so on and so forth… The biggest stop of the year was defensively and that won us this bowl game. That’s a good way to go out.”

D’Ernest Johnson returned the opening kickoff 46 yards and the Gulf Coast Offense got the ball back after a 21-yard interception return by Abraham. Johnson set new career highs with six catches for 95 yards and a touchdown.

Seven plays after Abraham’s pick, Flowers extended his program season rushing touchdown record to 16 with a 4-yard scoring run up the middle. Backup QB Brett Kean’s surprise two-point conversion completion to all-conference tight end Mitchell Wilcox gave USF an 8-0 advantage less than five minutes into the action.

Flowers did more damage with his feet on USF’s third drive, scrambling around traffic on another 4-yard touchdown run. Flowers set up the scoring drive with a 24-yard run and gained 46 yards on his first eight carries.

South Carolina turned a takeaway into seven points early in the second quarter and USF answered with Flowers’ third TD run of the day, which tied his previous career record and gave him a USF season record 18 on the year. Flowers’ 1-yard scoring run helped spot the Bulls a 22-7 lead three plays after he completed a 22-yard pass to Johnson on fourth-and-5 at the Gamecocks’ 42.

As USF faced a fourth-and-3 at the South Carolina 37, Flowers went for it all and found Johnson again for a touchdown pass that helped pump USF’s lead up to 29-14 with seven seconds left in the half. Flowers accounted for 278 total yards and was responsible for four touchdowns in the opening half.

South Carolina scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half and USF responded with Brandon Behr’s 21-yard field goal. Playing in place of injured Emilio Nadelman, Behr’s third field goal as a Bull extended USF’s 30-point streak to 17 games.

Following Behr’s kick, USF tacked on six more points with Fullwood’s 47-yard interception return with 7:06 remaining in the third quarter. Fullwood’s second interception of the season marked USF’s second pick-6 of the year, following Johnny Ward’s at Cincinnati on Oct. 1, and USF’s third defensive touchdown of the year.

South Carolina answered with 10 straight points, cutting the USF lead to 39-31, before the Bulls’ defense forced another turnover inside its own 5. South Carolina drove down to the USF 2, when Fullwood forced a fumble that McGee recovered in front of the goal line with 4:19 remaining.

Another wild fourth quarter for the Bulls continued when South Carolina tied the score at 39-39 with 1:11 remaining. The Gamecocks pushed their unanswered point total up to 18 with a two-point conversion catch by Hayden Hurst.

USF started overtime with Flowers’ 25-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone on the first play. School history was made when Love’s fourth-down sack secured USF’s first bowl win since 2010.

“I can’t be more proud of these guys. I just want to get in that locker room and hug them, and love them up. We started Charlie off right, Coach Strong,” Wiest said. “It’s not how we wanted the game to go, but it was the finish we were looking for and it’s really what counts.”

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