FT. LAUDERDALE (CFP) -- When the USF-FAU game was scheduled, Florida Atlantic officials knew it would bring an opportunity to showcase two of the state's newer programs. There is no way they could have known that the Bulls would be bringing a team ranked in the top ten, and a national television audience watching on ESPN-U.
For FAU, the game was almost a rousing success. For USF, it was nearly a certifiable disaster. The Owls pushed the Bulls to the edge before losing 35-23 in front of a packed house at Lockhart Stadium.
FAU quarterback Rusty Smith threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception against a South Florida defense that, a week earlier, limited West Virginia to just one touchdown. The Owls ran for more than 150 yards. In the end, USF barely outgained FAU 424-411.
When FAU turned the ball over on downs with 1:28 left in the game, the Owls only trailed 28-23. The Bulls padded the final margin on Benjamin Williams' 9-yard run with 29 seconds remaining.
Were it not for three missed field goals from makeable distances, and a questionable kick-catch interference penalty, this game may have been added to the slew of upsets occurring over the past two weekends.
For the second week in a row, USF had three turnovers in the first half and could have easily found itself trailing at the mid-way point. FAU, however, botched kicks from 37, 42 and 45 yards. Corey Small's interception, and 28-yard return, of a Matt Grothe pass set FAU up for its initial score late in the first half, a 12-yard pass from Smith to Cortez Gent.
South Florida broke the 7-7 halftime tie on the opening drive of the second half, marching 76 yards on 9 plays in less than three minutes. Williams scored from 9 yards out and USF looked like it would take command of the game.
Rusty Smith had other thoughts.
The Owl quarterback needed just 2:12 to re-tie the game at 14-all on Jason Harmon's 5-yard touchdown reception. Running back Willie Rose carried three times for 32 yards on the drive.
After an exchange of punts, USF went back on top 21-14 when quarterback Matt Grothe shedded several would-be tacklers on a spectacular 32-yard run halfway through the third quarter.
FAU trimmed the deficit to 21-17 with a 22-yard field goal on the next series. Harmon displayed his athleticism on the drive when he snagged a pass over the middle, immediately spun from the grasp of a Bulls' defender, leapt over another, and then spun away from other pursuers for a 32-yard gain before he was finally corralled at the USF 30-yard line.
The Houdini-like performance would not be the last amazing play in the game.
USF extended its lead when Williams started left, reversed direction and weaved his way through defenders at the line of scrimmage, then cut to the sideline and raced 54 yards for the score. The effort gave USF a 28-17 cushion with 9:54 remaining to be played.
Williams' exhilarating run came just one play after FAU thought it had recovered a fumbled punt return by USF at the Bulls' 20-yard line. However, the Owls were flagged for running into the punt returner before he could catch the ball, though replays clearly showed the contact was from his own team mate.
Even that series of unfortunate events didn't zap the stubborn Owls. FAU immediately responded with an 80-yard drive, capped by Smith's 47-yard pass to Di'Ivory Edgecomb that closed the gap to 28-23 with 6:41 still left in the game.
FAU forced USF to punt twice in the final minutes but failed to muster an offensive threat on either occasion.
Grothe and Williams combined for most of USF's offense. Grothe had 122 yards passing and 120 yards rushing. Williams finished with 186 yards and 3 touchdowns on 25 carries.