USF had the perfect excuse to lose.
Its starting quarterback and standout running back were lost for the game in the first half, and the Bulls offense never scored a touchdown.
USF's defense was gassed in the fourth quarter and if it buckled, there would've been sadness, but everyone would've understood.
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But this unit that has been asked to do so many things in the face of adversity this season would not capitulate and somehow they hung in there to pin a 26-20 loss on Cincinnati.
USF head coach Willie Taggart has talked since the first day about loading up the bus and putting his players in the right position.
"This is something we've been preaching to our guys. We tell the defense no matter what situation you find yourself in, your job is to get off the field and don't pout or put your head down," Taggart said.
Taggart said this was the beginning of a new season with the Bulls playing their American Athletic Conference opener against Cincinnati. The four previous losses the Bulls suffered didn't matter, but they hurt badly.
USF middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore called the victory more than just a conference win.
"It was like we just won the Super Bowl in the locker room," the senior said. "It's been a long time coming. Our defense made big plays and set the tone. We knew a win was coming; we just had to correct the small things. At the end, we were thinking we just had to make a big play and get a stop and we did."
The game started off like most this season. Marcus Shaw fumbled on his own 24 and Cincinnati recovered. It looked as if the Bearcats were going to be the fifth team this season to score off a USF turnover.
But that Mr. Turnover can be fickle, and Taggart kept saying the six defensive touchdowns scored against his team had to stop.
"I was tired of hearing people say we don't know how to win. I told our guys when you get tired of losing you will start winning and we saw that tonight," Taggart said. "It's been a long time. We had some tough losses, but our guys hung in there. We were excited. Our guys did it for each other. They drew strength from each other. If you would've seen the energy in our practice this week, you never would've thought this was an 0-4 team."
Four plays after Shaw's fumble, USF blocked a punt, and Nate Godwin took it 70 yards for touchdown.
USF kicker Marvin Kloss went to Taggart and told him to have faith. Taggart said he would and the senior responded with four field goals, including a career-long 52-yarder.
But that was just the beginning. Lattimore picked up a fumble and ran 10 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to put the Bulls up 20-6, and Mark Joyce picked off two passes.
USF's defense was on the field a lot and might have tired at the end when Cincinnati took command and cut a 26-6 deficit to 26-20.
But USF gave itself cushion to survive the Bearcats' last touchdown earlier in the period when it stopped Cincinnati on a fourth-and-one at the Bulls' 9 with Ryne Giddins making the stop.
"We had to make a stop there and that was a great play by Giddins," Lattimore said. "I saw the the running back bounce outside. Everything in the middle was clogged up. We were on our game and got the stop when we needed to get it."
Bobby Eveld, who lost the starting job to Bench several weeks ago, came in and managed the game well if not spectacular. He had some key runs to get drives alive and completed 10 of 16 passes for 122 yards.
"When Bobby lost his starting job, he could've quit and got down, but he didn't," Taggart said.
"Going into the game, we talked about how are you guys going to respond when something bad happens, and after Shaw's fumble they responded. Now we are picking up fumbles and scoring instead of just falling on them like we did earlier in the season. Our guys continued to play hard when things went bad."
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.