By any measure, USF's road trip to SMU last season promised to be a groundbreakingly awful game of football.
The Bulls entered the game at a very weak 3-6, having eked out victories over Western Carolina, UConn and Tulsa by a possession or less. The Mustangs, on the other hand, were 0-8 and hadn't finished within ten points of an opponent all season. USF averaged a lively 17.2 points per game on offense; SMU was giving up over 41 points per game on defense. If there was ever going to be a game that deserved to erased from the pages of college football history, this was going to be it.
And man, was it ugly. Observe the first four drives of the game for each team:
Turnover On Downs
The stoppable force and movable object were essentially playing each other to a draw. Then the tides changed: two USF fumbles, one from wideout Andre Davis...
...and the next on a muffed squib kick...
...allowed SMU to go into the half with a 13-0 lead, far and away their largest of the season.
After the third quarter came and went with no scoring, USF coach Willie Taggart elected to pull true freshman quarterback Quinton Flowers (in his first career start) for Mike White, who had started the majority of the season.
White delivered by the skin of his teeth, leading a pair of awkward touchdown drives in the game's final minutes, with the final one spanning 21 plays and featuring three fourth-down conversions.
It was an absolute nightmare for SMU-- with their first win of the season within their grasp, they saw it slip away on 4th and goal with nine seconds left, as White delivered a back-shoulder fade to Davis, who may or may not have pushed off the SMU defender to make the catch.
Let's address this off the bat: Taggart's handling of Flowers was egregious. Flowers' half brother had just been shot and killed earlier that week, merely the latest tragedy in a young but long life. To give Quinton a full vote of confidence leading up to the game during such a tough and tragic time - only to pull him halfway through - is horrifying. There's no denying this, and White should never have been removed from the starting role in the first place.
That said, we saw no bitterness or anger from Quinton at how things transpired. In fact, his poise and maturity in the huddle is absolutely remarkable for an 18-year-old young man.
"Listen up, man... don't worry about that right now. Don't worry about that right now. Play for each other. We brothers out here... that's the only thing we got out here."
Quinton started his first ever college game in the face of unspeakable tragedy, and despite being handed the keys to a car that was catapulting off a cliff, he played his dang heart out. He was robbed of a fairytale ending by a dumb coaching decision and a leaky offense, but that doesn't take away from the sheer power of his courage and strength.
When Quinton tells the team that all they've got is each other, you can't help but think about how this kid lost his mother, father and half-brother all by the age of 18.
"We brothers out here...that's the only thing we got out here."
That's not metaphorical. And when all was said and done, his brothers won the game for him.
The Bulls had a nightmare of a first half. The Mustangs had a nightmare of a second half. Both halves of football were borderline unwatchable, sloppy, and incompetent. All that said, this game was bigger than football-- and what's more, it deserves to be remembered. The storyline here shouldn't be SMU narrowly missing their first win, or Taggart's horribly managed game. It's the story of the two young quarterbacks-- Quinton Flowers and Mike White-- that made this game special.
So why taint the memory of the courage of Quinton Flowers, who has persevered through a lifetime of tragedy and continues to succeed, grabbing the front spot in USF's quarterback race in 2015? Why taint the memory of Mike White's swan song, a ferocious comeback that would be his last win as a USF Bull before his transfer to Western Kentucky in the offseason?
Sure, the context is awful, but forget the context for once-- at the end of the day, college football isn't about the coaches and the strategy and the scoreboards, it's about the individuals and their willpower and the storylines these young men create that no sport can match. You could choose to remember USF-SMU 2014 as a horrible lightweight battle between two awful teams, or you could remember Quinton Flowers' indomitable spirit and Mike White's last dance as a USF Bull. Why wouldn't you choose the latter?