TAMPA – USF got a nice surprise by staying at home for a bowl game.
There was a chance that the Bulls would play in the Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium what with the bowl’s American Conference tie-in. With the Boca Raton Bowl and Cure Bowl in Orlando as other potential in-state destinations, plus less probable out-of-state options, staying put was far from certain.
Playing in the friendly confines works nicely, thank you, especially for the seniors who get to play one final game in front of their fans. It appeared that Senior Day against UCF on Thanksgiving weekend would have served as their send-off. Alas, a December 20 (8 p.m. ESPN) bowl date against Marshall (8-4) of Conference USF provides one last chance for that to happen.
“I was happy because we didn’t have to get on an airplane and go anywhere, we stay right here,” said linebacker and the team’s leading tackler (104/9.5 per game) Khalid McGee, when asked about how he felt when the bowl destination was announced.
It certainly beats hitting the road to a destination that potentially would not allow many fans to travel to the game.
“For us to be back at Ray-Jay and be back in that atmosphere, it’s exciting to just play there again,” said receiver Tyre McCants. “I know for the seniors it’s another chance to play here in front of the green and gold. So, that’ll be a great moment for us.”
It would certainly make for a nice moment if the Bulls can snap a five-game losing streak that turned a 7-0 start into a 7-5 regular season. A little time away from the gridiron and what will be nearly one month between games has provided an opportunity to refuel and refocus.
“It will be very important (to go out a winner),” said McGee, who noted family members will be making the trip up from Miami. “We have a five-game losing streak and we will try to break that at Ray-Jay.”
For the seniors it also means making the most of these final days with their teammates.
“It’s a special moment and, for my senior year, I have just been taking everything in day by day,” said McCants. “A lot of people don’t get that opportunity and you have to take advantage of it and embrace it. I’ve been embracing it every day, taking it in and making sure that my last couple of days here that I put in my all.”
Four years goes by pretty quickly and the bowl experience in its entirely is one that should be enjoyed.
“Have fun with my teammates,” said safety Ronnie Hoggins. “I know it will be my last outing with them. Just to go out with a bang with those guys. With all the hard work we put in over the years it would be good to go out with a win.”
It sure would. For Hoggins a victory over the Thundering Herd would cap a memorable conclusion to his career at USF. Earlier this month he enjoyed a momentous occasion when he became the first person in his family to graduate from college.
“That was a huge, huge milestone for me and my family,” said the Coconut Creek native, who was one of 12 football players to graduate this semester and one of 27 USF athletes. “The home stretch was so hard, just finishing up was tough. Then I actually got it done and I accomplished a goal. The feeling was indescribable, walking across the stage and shaking (president Dr. Judy Genshaft’s) hand.”
Hoggins, McCants and McGee are among seniors that will exchange handshakes and hugs one final time. Hopefully for them it will be at the conclusion of a Gasparilla Bowl victory.
Last hurrah for Wilcox?
Mitchell Wilcox has had quite a junior season, which could be his last at USF as he weighs the prospects of playing in the NFL. He ranks 12th nationally with an average of 3.6 receptions per game and was named the American Conference’s first-team tight end despite playing injured most of the season’s second half.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said of the recognition. “There’s a lot of good tight ends in this conference, so and I am happy to get recognized like that. This season, obviously, there was a lot more responsibility for me getting the ball. It was a lot of fun to get those opportunities to get the ball in my hands and make some plays.”
Wilcox heads into the bowl with 40 receptions for 506 yards, both single-season school marks for a tight end. On the health front, he is feeling pretty good after having missed the November 3 contest against Tulane due to an ankle sprain, an injury that persisted during the Bulls’ final three games, which he played.
“I have had some time to rest during finals week,” he said. “So, I will be ready to go and juiced up for the game.”