The marriage between Skip Holtz and the USF football team is now official.
The ceremony took place at Nippert Stadium on Friday night when the underdog Bulls stunned two-time defending Big East champion Cincinnati.
Former head coach Jim Leavitt had gone up to the Queen City three times and came home feeling like a groom stranded at the altar.
Cincinnati had won 13 consecutive conference games and 14 straight at home. Holtz gets a win on his first trip and is forgiven for that loss to Syracuse, which helped take the sting out of his reputation by beating West Virginia on the road Saturday.
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This is now his football team, and to the players, he is the coach.
The best man at this tying of the knot was Mistral Raymond, though quarterback B.J. Daniels had to be part of the wedding party.
Raymond played like a man possessed in the Bulls’ 38-30 victory over Cincinnati.
A cornerback, the Palmetto High product led the Bulls with 10 tackles, including nine solos, had an interception and broke up two passes. For a good part of the game he covered Armon Binns, who is fourth on Cincinnati’s career reception list.
The 24-year-old Raymond leads what he calls a “bend-but-don’t-break defense.”
It lived up to that reputation against the Bearcats, surrendering a program-record 590 total yards, including 512 passing, but allowing Cincinnati only two touchdowns in six trips into the red zone.
USF held Isaiah Pead to 48 yards after he had run for an average of 170 yards over the previous three games.
The Bulls defense was on the field for nearly twice as many plays as its offense. It was tired and it was bent. But it wasn’t going to break; not if Raymond had anything to do with it.
He is the perfect representative for this defense, living a life whose dreams took a hit, but never died.
“At the end of the game, we were tired. But we gave it all we had, and that is what makes it much better, knowing you left it on the field and had nothing left,” Raymond said. “They kept fighting back, and those are the games I love to play. On their final drive, I was covering Binns everywhere on the field. It was just me and him, and I accept that challenge. We were talking to each other, but it was all in fun.”
Raymond almost had two interceptions. He says he jumped the route too soon on his first attempt and had his eyes on the end zone instead of the ball. The second time he made sure that wasn’t going to happen and stopped a Cincinnati drive that reached the USF 16 with his first pick of the season.
Raymond credits the coaching staff for putting him in the position to make plays, though it’s obvious he has instincts that will put him high on many NFL draft boards.
“We’ve had a bend, but don’t break attitude all season,” Raymond said. “When they got in the red zone we said we were going to hold them to a field goal, and that was the difference in the game along with our offense doing a great job.”
The Bulls appeared broken to a lot of people after they lost consecutive games to Syracuse and West Virginia, but Raymond said the players and Holtz would not allow that to happen.
“Coach Holtz’s attitude towards everything is positive, and he puts the team in the hands of the seniors,” Raymond said. “He is big on camaraderie and believes a team plays better when it is a close-knit group. In the third quarter, I walked up to him on the sidelines and told him I was excited about how our guys were playing. He turned around and it was exciting to watch.”
It was especially pleasing for Raymond to see his long-time friend Faron Hornes get his first college touchdown. The Southeast High product, who lost his punt return job earlier this season, caught a 70 yard TD pass.
“I was real excited for him,” Raymond said. “He is a very talented guy, and it was nice to see him show what he could do when he gets his hands on the ball. After the touchdown he came up to me and said ‘Manatee County represents.’ We try to support each other in that way.”
The victory was also a relief for Daniels, who has taken the brunt of the criticism for the Bulls struggling offense, which did not score a touchdown for nine quarters until he ran one in from 3 yards out in the second period.
The Bulls offense ranked near last nationally in numerous categories, including passing and third-down conversions, but Daniels showed poise and patience and hit open receivers he had missed in previous games.
The redshirt sophomore connected on 13 of 16 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for two more. He was successful on 7 of 12 third-down conversion attempts after going 1 for 11 against West Virginia, and his two TD runs came on 3rd-and-goal.
“Just to put up points and get that monkey off our backs means a lot, especially to come out with a win,” Daniels said. “It felt real good to get that first touchdown out of the way. Those big plays we hit (to Hornes and Dontavia Bogan) were big. They did a great job of getting open.”