South Florida’s defense deftly handled the nitroglycerin in helmets and pads that is Western Kentucky’s 44.2-points-per-game offense through one half of Monday’s Miami Beach Bowl at Marlins Park.
Then came the big bump of the third quarter, Western Kentucky went BOOM!, and the No. 25 Hilltoppers erupted for 28 points that fueled a 45-35 victory in front of an announced crowd of 21,712.
Western Kentucky ends the season 12-2. South Florida finishes 8-5.
Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty completed 32 of 44 for 461 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions and finished off the 14th 5,000-yard passing season in NCAA history.
“To take a big win against a guy who gave me a chance [South Florida coach Willie Taggart, a former Western head coach and star player],” Doughty said. “A lot of colleges didn’t give me a chance coming out of high school. He took a risk on me, and I thank him for it. It was a good feeling to do this at home.”
Two of the North Broward Prep graduate’s touchdowns were to Nicholas Norris, a graduate of nearby Booker T. Washington.
“He’s one of our receivers who doesn’t lack confidence,” Western coach Jeff Brohm said. “He plays with a swagger.”
Liberty City’s Quinton Flowers, quarterbacking South Florida, ran for 108 yards and threw for 273 yards on 14-of-32 passing. Marlon Mack also ran for 108 yards for the Bulls.
“I think all of us had our ankles broken three times by that quarterback,” Western senior linebacker Nick Holt said of Flowers, who dodged an unblocked Holt for a 9-yard scramble on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter.
“I started off a little slow, missed a couple of targets,” Flowers said. “I put that game on me.”
Flowers started better than Doughty. He drove the Bulls 62 yards and ended the drive himself by racing 12 yards to the left pylon on a quarterback draw. When Rodney Adams raced 34 yards on a jet sweep, the Bulls led 14-0.
“We made some adjustments,” Doughty said. “Early on, I thought we had some good plays called, I was just missing the throws. Credit to them, they did a great job of disguising stuff, bringing some heat, getting you offset a little bit. I settled down, our team settled down. We just needed to take a deep breath. We were too high early.”
Doughty hit Taywan Taylor on a 53-yard bomb to the Bulls’ 13. Anthony Wales circled right end for what officials ruled a touchdown even as Wales might have lost the ball as he made a superfluous dive for the pylon. The half ended with a 39-yard field goal by Garrett Schwettmann to give South Florida a 14-10 lead.
The Bulls opened the second half with a run-heavy drive that took 4:37 off the clock before a missed field goal. Western Kentucky countered with a drive that took 40 seconds off the clock — Wales’ 6-yard run, incompletion, Doughty to Norris cutting over the middle and Norris streaking halfway to Booker T. for a 69-yard touchdown.
“That was the thing that changed the momentum, right there,” Brohm said.
The Bulls neglected to cover Norris deep up the sideline on Western Kentucky’s next possession, and he had a 55-yard touchdown. Needing an answer, South Florida pulled out a halfback option, D’Ernest Johnson hitting Tyre McCants from 34 yards away.
A 24-21 lead got restored to 10 when Western Kentucky wide receiver Nacarius Fant scored on a 9-yard reverse that saw him show better brakes than a Camaro to avoid a tackle in the backfield. When Jared Dangerfield sailed over two defenders for a Doughty pass and held on when they flipped him like a cheerleader, Western led 38-21 and the game seemed decided. After all, South Florida’s a run-based offense that last trailed in the second half on Nov. 7.
So, of course, Flowers found Adams on a deep post for a 53-yard touchdown. And Flowers again scored on a quarterback draw to get the Bulls within three at 38-35.
But after Lee intercepted a pass that Wales juggled to set the Bulls up at the 50, they got only close enough to try a 53-yard field goal. Emilio Nadelman’s kick descended wide left.
Wales broke through for a 42-yard run on the next possession.
The air you heard was either the deflation of South Florida. Or Marlins Park exhaling.