South Florida had already set a school record for wins in a season. Thursday, the Bulls added to it. Barely.
Trailing 29-14 in the first half of the 11th annual Birmingham Bowl, South Carolina (6-7) roared its way back to tie the game late but its USF that will head back to the Sunshine State with a wild 46-39 win, its fifth in a row to close out the season. The win was the 11th for the Bulls in 2016, setting a school record. This year, the 20th anniversary of the first season in the football program’s history, was also the first time they’d reached double-digits in wins, with the previous high being nine wins accomplished on three occasions, the last coming in 2007.
The win was also the Bulls’ first in a bowl game since 2010. It didn’t come easy, though. At all.
With the Bulls up 39-21 late in the third, an Elliott Fry field goal cut the Gamecocks’ deficit to 15. A little over five minutes into the fourth, a Jake Bentley touchdown pass sliced USF’s lead to 39-31. With an offense that was dominant in the first half suddenly stagnant, the Gamecocks got the ball back again with 6:33 left in the game. Five plays later they were at the USF 8-yard line; on the sixth play, A.J. Turner appeared headed for what, with a two-point conversion, could’ve been the game-tying touchdown run but fumbled the ball back to the Bulls a yard short of the goal line.
Forcing a Bulls punt from their own end zone after three plays netted next to nothing, Chris Lammons returned a punt that was initially ruled a touchdown but, upon further review, was placed at the two-yard line. Three plays later, a Turner one-yard run left the ‘Cocks a two-point conversion away from tying the score; a Bentley pass to Hayden Hurst was complete to knot the score at 39-all and send it to overtime.
Quinton Flowers, dominant in the first half but bothered by injury in the second, hit Elkanah Dillon from 25 yards out on the first play of extra time to give the Bulls back the lead. Facing a fourth down on their first possession of overtime, a strip-sack of Bentley recovered by the Bulls ended the Gamecocks’ comeback hopes. It was USC’s third red-zone turnover of the game.
Flowers finished the game with five touchdowns — three rushing, two passing — and 366 yards of offense. He led the team in rushing with 105 yards.
Despite the loss, the future, especially at the quarterback position, certainly looks bright for Will Muschamp & Company.
Bentley finished the game 32-of-43 passing for 390 yards and three touchdowns. He did, though, throw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown in the third quarter. Sophomore wide receiver Deebo Samuel was on the receiving end of 14 of those completions and 190 of the yards.
The loss drops the SEC to 1-3 this bowl season, one year after going 9-2.