TAMPA — Meteorologically and historically, it was a blissful day for a funeral.
On an afternoon when the humidity was nowhere near its full strength, USF buried the moral victories and valiant efforts it had endured for the better part of half a decade. Instead, the Bulls delivered a tangible, exciting and tone-setting triumph.
One that may resonate well into the distant future.
USF’s 42-29 win over Rice before a crowd of 29,141 at Raymond James Stadium erased a stench of futility that had lingered for about half a decade.
The win ended the program’s 13-game losing streak in the American Athletic Conference since October 2021. The Bulls (2-2, 1-0 AAC) have not hit better than .500 in the first four games of the season since 2018.
But after a historic offensive afternoon, first-year coach Alex Golesh was only concerned with what the triumph meant in the context of the Bulls’ founding, rather than the futility of the past.
“I appreciate the score being 1-0 in this game,” he said.
“Just like I told our kids, it doesn’t mean more or less. It just means our process was right enough to win a football game. I don’t know the other meaning of it. I wasn’t here, I really don’t care. It’s important to me that our process was right last week to achieve a 1-0 result.”
But in the process, Golesh’s maligned downfield passing game went from mediocre to mesmerizing in one surreal afternoon.
Naiem Simmons, a transfer from Football Championship Subdivision program Wagner, paced the Owls’ secondary for 272 receiving yards on eight catches. The single-game yardage output was the most prolific in major college football history at Florida, surpassing the previous mark set by FSU’s Ron Sellers in 1968 (14 catches, 260 yards against Wake Forest).USF quarterback Byrum Brown completed 22 of 29 passes for 435 yards and two touchdowns. [ CHRIS HENRY | Courtesy of USF Athletics ]
Meanwhile, redshirt quarterback Byrum Brown, who Golesh said was still developing clairvoyance with his mostly new receivers, finished 22 of 29 for 435 yards with two touchdowns and zero picks.
The passing yards were the second-most by a Bulls quarterback in a game, behind Quinton Flowers’ 503-yard performance against the Knights in 2017. Brown also ran for 82 yards, joining Flowers as the only two USF players to do so totaled at least 500 yards in a single event.
Golesh praised Brown – who turns 19 on Friday – for a halftime adjustment that allowed USF to outscore Rice 29-15 in the final two quarters and blow out the Owls.
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“I just made a suggestion: let the wide receivers go deep,” Brown said. “He listened and I’m glad he did. Have fun.”
Five of the Bulls’ splash offensive plays (15 or more yards) came in the second half, with Brown finding Simmons (mostly in single coverage) after halftime for completions of 51, 42, 49 and 52 yards.
“The defense they play is when it’s not man, they play quarters and reduce their safety a lot,” said Simmons, who caught all eight passes aimed at him. “When we play the offense we play, which is very fast, they tend to make mistakes and we tend to capitalize on those mistakes.”
A day earlier, during the Bulls’ regular “Fast Fridays” practice, Golesh pulled Simmons aside and told the 5-foot-11 junior — who totaled seven catches in the first three games — that he would rack up 150 receiving yards .
“I told him this not because I knew we would throw it at him a few times, but because I just knew it would get back at him,” Golesh said. “If you invest in your process, it will pay off. It will. This applies to me and to the elite teams I have played on.”
With his team trailing 14-13 at halftime, Brown found Simmons in single coverage down the right sideline for a 51-yard gain on the opening play of the second half. Three plays later, Brown jumped untouched into the end zone from a yard out, giving USF a 20-14 lead.
But a two-play sequence midway through the third quarter proved almost shattering.
Shortly after Bulls tailback Nay’Quan Wright stumbled into the end zone on a promising drive that would have given USF a two-score lead, Rice’s veteran rover quarterback JT Daniels found junior Dean Connors behind the Bulls secondary for an 80-yarder -Touchdown.
“Really disappointing,” Golesh said. “At the end of the day, the biggest point swing you could ever have. …Literally everything we talk about, next piece. In the truest sense of the word: next game.”
It arrived in a short time.
Two possessions later, Brown once again found Simmons isolated behind the Rice secondary for a 49-yard touchdown, giving USF a 27-21 lead. On the very next possession, he hit Simmons with a deep ball over the middle for 52 yards, setting up an 8-yard throw to Sean Atkins.
Then Wright made amends for his earlier mistake and sealed the outcome with a 1-yard scoring run with 8:52 to play, giving the Bulls a 40-21 lead. A nifty two-point attempt – Atkins took a handoff on the final play and hit Brown for the conversion – made it 42-21.
“Coach constantly preaches the next-play mentality,” Brown said. “Just being able to get back on our feet and recover and still go full throttle, that’s what we did.”
Defensively, things were a little more dicey, although Todd Orlando’s unit held Orlando Rice to 1 rushing yard.
A week after holding Alabama to 113 yards in the Bulls’ most inspiring defensive performance in recent memory, USF wasn’t nearly as stingy against Daniels. Playing for his fourth Football Bowl Subdivision program, Daniels was 27 of 40 for 432 yards and three touchdowns before exiting after being rocked by a sack in the third quarter.
So the process is not yet perfected.
But it was enough for an exciting night. If not sublime.
“This is definitely what we’ve been waiting for,” defensive end Jonathan Ross said. “I just feel like there’s more to come.”
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