USF has a record-breaking day against Rice, finishing 13 games in conference play

TAMPA – Meteorologically and historically, this was a happy day for burial.

In the afternoon, with the humidity far from full force, USF laid to rest the moral victories and valiant efforts with which it had been forced to settle for the better part of a half-decade. Instead, the bulls achieved a tangible, exciting and pace-setting victory.

One that may resonate far into the future.

USF’s 42-29 victory over Rice in front of a Raymond James Stadium crowd of 29,141 overcame the odor of futility that had lingered for nearly half a decade.

The win ended a 13-game American Athletic Conference losing streak dating back to October 2021. The Bulls (2-2, 1-0 AAC) haven’t hit .500 or better through the first four games of a season since 2018.

However, in the wake of a historic offensive stretch, first-year coach Alex Gulich was only concerned with what the victory meant in the context of the Bulls organization, not the absurdity of the past.

“I appreciate being 1-0 in this match,” he said.

“Just like I told our kids, it doesn’t mean anything more or less than that. It just means that our process was correct enough to win a football game. And I don’t know the other significance of that. I wasn’t here, I really don’t care. I care about the process being What we did last week is correct so we can go 1-0.

However, in the process, Gulich’s passing game evolved from mediocre to astonishing on a surreal afternoon.

Naeem Simmons, a transfer from Wagner’s Football Championship Subdivision program, obliterated the Owls’ secondary for 272 yards on eight catches. The single-game yardage effort was the most productive in major college football history at Florida, surpassing the previous mark set by FSU’s Ron Sellers (14 catches, 260 yards vs. Wake Forest) in 1968.

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NFL quarterback Byrom-Brown finished 22-of-29 passing for 435 yards and two touchdowns. [ CHRIS HENRY | Courtesy of USF Athletics ]

Meanwhile, freshman quarterback Byrom-Brown, who Golish said is still developing his clairvoyance with his new group of mostly receivers, finished 22 of 29 for 435 yards with two touchdowns and zero picks.

The passing yardage was the second-most by a Bulls quarterback in the game, behind Quinton Flowers’ 503-yard effort against the Knights in 2017. Brown also ran for 82 yards, joining Flowers as the only players in the NFL to have combined for no Less than 500 total yards. In one competition.

Gulich credited Brown — who turns 19 on Friday — with the first-half comeback that enabled USF to outscore Rice 29-15 in the final two quarters and annihilate the Owls over the top.

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“I just made a suggestion, let the wide receivers win deep,” Brown said. “He listened and I’m glad he did. So much fun.”

Five of the Bulls’ offensive plays (15 yards or more) occurred in the second half, with the Browns finding Simmons (mostly in man coverage) for completions of 51, 42, 49 and 52 yards after halftime.

“The defense they play, if it’s not a man, they play in the quarters and they lower their safety a lot,” said Simmons, who caught all eight passes directed at him. “When we play attack, we play very fast, they tend to make mistakes, and we tend to capitalize on those mistakes.”

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A day earlier, during the Bulls’ regular “Fast Fridays” practice, Gulich pulled Simmons to the side and told the 5-foot-10 junior — who has totaled seven catches in the first three games — that he was going to rack up 150 receiving yards.

“I told him that not because I knew we were going to throw it at him a few times, but I just knew it would make up for it,” Golish said. “When you pour into your process, it will pay you. It will. That’s for me, and it’s for the elite teams I’ve been in.”

Trailing 14-13 at halftime, Brown found Simmons in one-on-one coverage down the right sideline for a 51-yard gain on the opener of the second half. Three plays later, the Browns jumped into the end zone untouched from a yard out, giving the NFL a 20-14 lead.

But a two-play sequence midway through the third quarter was almost painful.

Moments after Bulls tailback Nay’Quan Wright fumbled in the end zone on a promising drive that would give USF a two-score lead, Rice’s veteran vagrant quarterback JT Daniels found youngster Dean Connors behind the Bulls’ secondary for an 80-yard touchdown.

“Really disappointing,” Golish said. “At the end of the day, it’s the biggest swing you can ever have. … Literally all we talk about is the next play. Like literally the next play.”

Arrived in short time.

Then, Brown again found an isolated Simmons behind Rice’s secondary for a 49-yard touchdown, giving USF a 27-21 lead. On the next possession, Simmons hit a deep ball over the middle for 52 yards, setting up an 8-yard scoring throw to Sean Atkins.

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Wright then atoned for his earlier mistake, clinching the score with a one-yard scoring run with 8:52 left in the game, giving the Bulls a 40-21 lead. Utility’s two-point attempt — Atkins made a final handoff and Brown hit for the conversion — made it 42-21.

“Coach preaches that all the time, the next play mentality,” Brown said. “Just being able to bounce back and recover and continue to keep our foot on the gas, that’s what we did.”

Defensively, things were a bit more dangerous, although Todd Orlando’s unit held Price to one yard.

A week after holding Alabama to 113 yards in the first half in the Bulls’ most inspired defensive effort in recent memory, the NFL wasn’t nearly as stingy against Daniels. Playing in his fourth Football Bowl Subdivision, Daniels was 27 of 40 for 432 yards and three touchdowns before exiting after being shaken down on a third-quarter sack.

So the process is not complete.

But one delightful night was enough. If it is not sublime.

“This is definitely what we’ve been waiting for,” defensive end Jonathan Ross said. “I feel as if there is more to come.”

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