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USF Bulls clinch winning season with Boca Raton Bowl romp of Syracuse

BOCA RATON — Amid the wetness, wind and utter wackiness of the 10th Boca Raton Bowl arose an outcome that seemed somewhat fitting. The surreal evolution of USF manifested itself by the Bulls winning in an utter laugher.

Which represents a quantum stride from laughingstock.

Clearly bent on making a national statement against a Power Five foe, the Bulls didn’t merely put a bow on a resurgent season, they put a Grade-A stamp on it.

What other grade suffices at this point? A year and change after taking over one of the nation’s most moribund Football Bowl Subdivision programs, Alex Golesh has altered the culture, confidence and fortune of USF. The latest sign: a 45-0 romp Thursday night against a discombobulated Syracuse team before an FAU Stadium audience of 20,711.

“A year ago, man, we asked this group to buy into a vision. And in college football today, (it’s) truly hard,” said Golesh, who inherited a program with one FBS triumph in the previous three seasons.

“Modern-day college football, modern-day society tells you that it’s about you and it’s not about the team. I just told these guys thank-you for having some blind faith in me and our staff that we could lay a foundation for something and never put a ceiling on it. Certainly the floor was where we were at.”

A day after securing the top-rated signing class of any Group of Five program, the Bulls (7-6) clinched their first winning season in five years with their most lopsided bowl triumph ever. Offensive milestones — namely by quarterback Byrum Brown and receiver Sean Atkins — were reached, and the defense posted the program’s first shutout in 14 years.

“We played harder than those guys,” Golesh said.

“I told the defense after the second drive, we were playing harder than them. There’s a team that wants to be there and is just happy to be there, and a team that’s there to win the game. We were there to win the game.”

As a result, USF will enter the offseason oozing momentum and harboring plausible American Athletic Conference title hopes. Brown is staying for a third season, and Atkins is remaining for a sixth. Top rusher Nay’Quan Wright also is expected back, and replenishments appear on the way for a defense that struggled mightily with consistency.

But back to 2023 for now. What Thursday night’s game couldn’t offer in blissful weather, it atoned for with the bizarre.

Syracuse (6-7), playing with an interim coach (Nunzio Campanile) and without starting quarterback Garrett Shrader (shoulder surgery), tried no fewer than three players under center. Six-foot-4 tight end Dan Villari, who played QB in a previous life for Michigan before transferring, started the game.

Then it got really wacky. And sometimes salty.

The strangest sequence occurred late in the first quarter, when Brown’s incomplete horizontal throw to Atkins near midfield was ruled a backward lateral that Syracuse safety Alijah Clark scooped up and returned to the end zone. The touchdown was negated by an illegal blindside block on the return.

Two plays later, Syracuse fumbled out of bounds. Two plays after that, Orange kicker Brady Denaburg picked up a mishandled snap on a 45-yard field goal try and fumbled upon being tackled by Tavis Ward. Aamaris Brown-Bunkley scooped the ball and raced for a 64-yard TD.

Tramel Logan would upstage him just before halftime.

When Daquan Evans forced a fumble with a blindside sack of Orange quarterback Braden Davis, the senior defensive end scooped the ball and galloped for a 61-yard TD, giving USF a 31-0 halftime lead. The touchdown, Logan’s third of the season, gave him 131 fumble-return yards on the year — yet another Bulls single-season mark.

USF would finish the first half with more fumble-return yards (125) than Syracuse’s offense totaled (91). Amid those scoop-and-scores, Brown would throw for three touchdowns and join Quinton Flowers as the only players in program history to total 4,000 yards in a season (finishing with 4,122).

“I’ve said it before — tough, smart gritty,” Golesh said of Brown.

Atkins, a onetime walk-on, had six catches for 93 yards and became the first Bull to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a year (finishing with 1,054). His 35-yard scoring reception from Brown — on a busted coverage in the third quarter — gave USF a 38-0 lead.

“It just means that our process was right all year,” said Atkins, clutching a cigar in the postgame press conference.

“Coach keeps emphasizing that, and it’s not results-driven, but whenever you’ve got a whole bunch of guys on the field just (seeking) the same thing, and that’s going out and getting wins every week, that’s the reason I was able to do that.”

Meantime, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s unit barely allowed Syracuse and its ensemble of quarterbacks to breathe. The Orange totaled 159 yards, finished 1 of 17 on third down and had more penalty yards (50) than rushing yards (20).

“It was amazing,” Logan said. “Man, I’ve been preaching it all season, wanting a Krispy Kreme (shutout). So to do it in a bowl game was amazing.”

Who could’ve envisioned such a lasting impression?

Not to mention last laugh.

“We haven’t arrived, but gosh darn it, have we laid a foundation for something elite,” Golesh said. “And I’m just really proud of our guys.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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