Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer 347d

South Florida impresses new coach Charlie Strong with thrilling bowl win

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When South Florida sacked Jake Bentley to clinch a 46-39 win over South Carolina in Thursday’s Birmingham Bowl, bedlam ensued. The players rushed the field, followed by some of the fans who made the trip. The overtime victory capped an 11-2 season for the Bulls.

But the happiest person on the South Florida sideline might have been someone who neither played nor coached in the game: Charlie Strong.

Strong, who on Dec. 11 agreed to become South Florida’s next head coach, didn’t coach the bowl game. He did, however, make the trip to Birmingham to watch his future team. He has to be excited about what he saw -- and what he has coming back in 2017.

The star for South Florida was quarterback Quinton Flowers, who has already announced his intentions to return for his senior season. Flowers earned MVP honors Thursday with 261 yards passing, 105 yards rushing and five total touchdowns. He entered the game fourth among FBS quarterbacks in Total QBR (85.9) this season, and facing an SEC defense did nothing to slow him down.

Flowers is one of eight South Florida starters expected to return for an offense that has scored at least 30 points in 17 straight games, the longest active streak in the FBS.

The South Florida defense, which also has eight starters coming back next season, struggled at times against Bentley and South Carolina, but the Bulls made plays when they needed to. The sack that sealed the win was one of five sacks in the game. The Bulls also forced two fumbles inside the red zone in the second half, and Tajee Fullwood’s 47-yard interception return for a touchdown midway through the third quarter put South Florida in front 39-21.

Give Bentley credit, though. The freshman quarterback finished 32-of-43 passing and threw for a career-high 390 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

South Florida wouldn’t be denied, though. The Bulls felt disrespected coming in. They wanted this bowl game, specifically, because they knew it would pit them against an SEC team. It was their chance to prove they were legit. By winning Thursday, they became the first team to take down the SEC in the Birmingham Bowl since the 2010-2011 season when Pittsburgh beat Kentucky.

With Flowers coming back and Strong taking over as head coach, South Florida should get plenty of respect heading into next season. If Thursday’s win was any indication, 2017 has a chance to be a special season.

But the Bulls will remember this Birmingham Bowl victory for a long time. It was only fitting Strong was there to be a part of it.

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