USF Senior Writer
SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Three close losses in a row made the Bulls an aggressive bunch.
Playing it safe took a back seat to gutsy play calls and heroic moments in USF's 37-17 victory over Syracuse that showed a national TV audience the Bulls really can thrive in prime time.
"We said before the game we were going to let it loose, have fun and just play football," quarterback B.J. Daniels said.
Proof came as early as the second quarter when the Bulls had the ball and faced a fourth-and-2 on the Syracuse 5 yard-line. A field goal gives you a 6-0 lead, but head coach Skip Holtz did his best high stakes gambler impression and wanted much more for a team that was anxious to break through in crunch time.
"When you work that hard, you have to get paid," Holtz said. "We have to get some points out of this and I didn't think three was what we were looking to settle for."
Demetris Murray gained the 2 yards needed on fourth down. Marcus Shaw trotted into the end zone from 3 yards out one play later and Holtz scooped up all the poker chips after going all in.
"I always want to go for it," Daniels said with a grin. "Coach calls me a risky guy sometimes, but it was big for us to have the momentum swing and to get it."
USF had a 20-10 lead at the break and was far from satisfied. The Bulls were in similar positions before against UConn, Cincinnati and Rutgers only to see an advantage on the scoreboard fade away in the second half.
"We went in the locker room saying, 'The score is 0-0. We have to put the pedal to the metal,' " Daniels said.
The Bulls' lead was up to 23-10 in the fourth quarter, but Syracuse was threatening to come back in the period's opening minutes. The Orange had a first-and-goal at the USF 7 and got to the 2 by third down. Quarterback Ryan Nassib threw an incomplete pass, then saw a fourth down try fail when he was wrapped up and somehow pitched a ball that fluttered to the turf.
"Our defense had their backs against the wall and they came through," Daniels said.
OK, one big stop is good and all, but twice was especially nice for a USF defense that failed to keep Rutgers out of the end zone late in the fourth quarter less than a week earlier.
Syracuse had another shot at making it a one-score game when it made it back inside the Bulls' red zone following a USF punt. The Orange got as far as the USF 12 before two more Nassib passes were turned away on third and fourth down.
"We spent a lot of time in the red zone this week giving them looks that we maybe hadn't given them," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said.
Practice paid off and ended up giving the USF defense its swagger back.
"It did a lot for us. We know we're a good defense. We know we can make plays and we know we can play big in big situations," linebacker Mike Lanaris said. "We got our mojo back I feel like on defense."
The second stand definitely pumped up a USF offense that took the ball and marched 83 yards downfield to give the Bulls a lot more breathing room. Murray scored on a 2-yard run on a drive that took nearly five minutes off the clock and left Syracuse only about five minutes to dig itself out of a huge hole.
"I'm just really proud of the way the offense stepped up in the second half and was able to run the ball," Holtz said. "They finished the football game like good football teams do."
The Orange showed a glimmer of hope when it scored a touchdown in about a minute and a half, but it was too little too late. USF recovered an on-side kick and the offense stayed greedy for more points. A six-play, 46-yard drive ate up 2:40 off the clock and Murray silenced the few that remained in the Carrier Dome with another touchdown run.
Game. Mission accomplished. Losing streak over.
"It's been six weeks since we've had a win. It's been six weeks with two open dates," Holtz said. "... I felt awful for these players because they played so hard. They had such an unbelievable attitude and they've worked so hard."
The Bulls won't bask in the glory of a victory that was anticipated for too long. Still, it sure felt good for guys who've laid it all on the line for weeks with no prize to show for it.
"I haven't heard a fight song sung like that since probably Vero Beach the first year," Murray said after he exited an electric locker room.
This one was well deserved and showed the Bulls are more than willing to get back up after being knocked down numerous times.
"They're not going to quit," Holtz said.
Friday also might have been a sign that this USF team truly has enough confidence to put teams away, even if it has to go for it on fourth down to prove its point.
"They're not going to lay down," Holtz said.