By TOM ZEBOLD
TAMPA – Elkino Watson jogged through the tunnel with a smile on his face, his helmet in one hand and a valuable possession in the other – a game ball.
The defensive tackle’s interception with less than a minute remaining sealed USF’s 13-6 victory over UConn on Saturday night before a crowd of 36,190 at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls snapped a six-game losing streak thanks in large part to a defense that forced three turnovers, posted four sacks and held the Huskies to just two field goals.
“I couldn’t have written a better script to see the defense come in and hold Connecticut to six points and be able to secure the win at the end of the game,” head coach Skip Holtz said.
The Bulls (3-6, 1-4) won the game, but they suffered a huge loss when senior quarterback B.J. Daniels went down with what Holtz said is “likely” a broken left ankle that will end his season.
“Part of your heart is broken for a young man that has competed his tail off and given everything he’s had to this university the last four years,” said Holtz after seeing Daniels get helped off the field in the fourth quarter.
Injuries have taken quite a toll on USF on both sides of the ball, but the Bulls’ defense still found a way to turn in its best performance of the season. USF scored six points following two UConn turnovers, including the Bulls’ first interception of the season that was snatched up by safety Jon Lejiste with less than 7 minutes remaining.
Before the celebration and Daniels’ injury, the USF offense was the first unit to find success against the Huskies (3-6, 0-4).
The Bulls flustered USF using a hurry-up offense during an 80-yard scoring drive that allowed Daniels to make USF history. The senior quarterback ran 5 yards into the end zone with 4:08 left in the first quarter to become the program’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 25. Daniels came into the game in a tie with Andre Hall, who rushed for 24 scores at USF from 2005-06.
Daniels went 8-for-10 for 77 yards through the air in the first quarter and his 82 total yards moved him into second place in total offense at USF. Marquel Blackwell previously was in second with 10,343 yards from 1999-02.
The Bulls went into the locker room with a 7-3 lead after keeping Huskies punter Cole Wagner busy in the first half. UConn was forced to punt on five of its first six drives until Chad Christen’s 50-yard field goal got the Huskies on the scoreboard with 2 seconds remaining before halftime.
UConn had only 2 rushing yards in the opening half and went 1-for-6 on third down with USF’s DeDe Lattimore and Todd Chandler both sacking Chandler Whitmer to force punts.
The Huskies moved the ball inside the USF 30 for the first time more than midway through the third quarter and cut USF’s lead to 7-6 with a 37-yard field goal by Christen. The kick marked UConn’s first points in the second half of a game since Lyle McCombs’ 2-yard TD run against Buffalo on Sept. 29.
The score remained the same until the fourth quarter when Maikon Bonani connected on a 28-yard field goal attempt with 7:53 remaining. The drive was made possible thanks to a fumble recovery by freshman linebacker Tashon Whitehurst, who jumped on a mishandled handoff by McCombs at the UConn 38.
“Some of the young guys really stepped up,” Holtz said.
The injury bug continued to bite USF on the drive, however, when Daniels injured his ankle running 15 yards to the UConn 8. USF already was without scoring threats Lindsey Lamar, Evan Landi and Derrick Hopkins heading into the game.
USF was able to protect the lead on UConn’s next drive when Lejiste got his hands on a deep ball attempt by the Huskies.
“All I could think was just don’t drop the ball,” Lejiste said.
Bonani extended the Bulls’ lead to 13-6 with a 50-yard field goal with 4:26 to play. The senior was named Big East Special Teams Player of the Week after setting a USF record with 18 points scored against Syracuse (5-for-5 in field goal attempts).
“All season long he’s been huge. He’s been money,” Holtz said.
UConn had more than 4 minutes to tie the game up, but USF’s defense finished the job when Watson intercepted a tipped pass by Chandler at the Bulls’ own 23-yard line.
“It took a defensive lineman to get the interception to win the game, but we’ll take it any way we can get it,” Holtz said.
USF gets its second bye week of the season to heal up before traveling to Miami to face the Hurricanes on Saturday, Nov. 17.