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USF slides by heavy-hearted Bearcats
TAMPA, Fla. (AP)-- The Cincinnati Bearcats prayed together, wore decals on their helmets in memory of Ben Flick, and did everything they could to rally from a big second-half deficit.
What they couldn't do Saturday night was honor their teammate who died in a car accident two weeks ago by beating South Florida.
"We really wanted to get this one for Ben," linebacker Greg Blair said after Nate Godwin scored on a long blocked field goal return and DeDe Lattimore scooped up a fumble for another touchdown to help USF begin American Athletic Conference play with a 26-20 victory in Cincinnati's first game since Flick died and two other teammates were injured in the wreck on Sept. 21.
The Bearcats (3-2, 0-1) spent a difficult bye week grieving, attending Flick's funeral and making hospital visits in addition to practicing. They were looking forward to playing a game to help things get back to normal.
Two hours before kickoff, the entire Cincinnati team gathered at the midfield at Raymond James Stadium, forming a circle around the USF logo to pray. A moment of silence in Flick's memory was observed before the opening kickoff. Two other players were injured in the wreck, and one of them receiver Mark Barr remains hospitalized.
"We really tried to stress the fact that we have to play for them," Blair said. "We just didn't (win)."
Coach Tommy Tuberville said the Bearcats were ready to play, but simply did not play well enough.
"You can't go back on what happened," Tuberville said. "That's a tragedy, and that will be in their minds all year long, but that had nothing to do with them knocking fumbles loose and blocking field goals. We were much more into the game than that."
USF (1-4, 1-0) won for the first time under coach Willie Taggart, who left Western Kentucky after last season to take over a program that underachieved for much of the eight years it was a member of the Big East.
The Bulls lost quarterback Steven Bench and running back Marcus Shaw, who entered the game averaging 131.2 yards per game rushing, to leg injuries in the first half.
But with Cincinnati turning the ball over four times, missing an extra point and having a field goal blocked, USF's sputtering offense didn't need to get into the end zone to do its part.
Marvin Kloss kicked four field goals, including a 52-yarder. Bobby Eveld came off the bench to complete 10 of 16 passes for 122 yards, no TDs and no interceptions.
"It's big. It's first one," Taggart said. "Hopefully it gives our guys some confidence going forward."
Brendon Kay rallied Cincinnati from a 26-6 deficit with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes. But USF's defense also rose to the occasion, clinging to a 13-point lead by stopping the Bearcats on downs at the Bulls' 10 with 6:45 remaining.
The car accident occurred on Sept. 21 while traveling back to Cincinnati from Oxford, Ohio, where the Bearcats had beaten Miami of Ohio earlier in the day.
The players were making the trip on their own because as redshirt freshmen, they didn't dress or travel with the team to the game.
The Bearcats got off to an encouraging start defensively Saturday night, forcing a fumble on the second play from scrimmage. But the offense was unable to take advantage, settling for a 40-yard field goal attempt that 6-foot-5 Mike McFarland leaped to block and the speedy Godwin ran back 75 yards to give USF a 7-0 lead.
It didn't get any easier the rest of the way.
USF scored on defense for the second week, with Lattimore scooping up Brendon Kay's fumble and returning it 10 yards for a touchdown that put the Bulls up 20-6 in the second quarter.
"Defensively, we played well enough to win. We played hard, we played fast and we played physical. ... You give up 14 points (on a fumble and blocked punt), it's hard to overcome that," Tuberville said. "We didn't play like a very polished football team, hadn't since really the first game."
Kay completed 24 of 36 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns 22 yards to Mekale McKay in the second quarter, 27 yards to Chris Moore early in the fourth, and 15 yards to McKay to trim USF's lead to 26-20 with 2:03 left.
The victory was just the second in the last 14 games for USF, dating back to last season.
"It's been a long time. We've had some tough losses," Taggart said.
"I told the guys: 'I'm tired of hearing people say you don't know how to win,'" the coach added. "I told them you'll win when you get tired of losing. That's what they did. They were sick and tired of being sick and tired."
PHOTO: South Florida defensive back Nate Godwin (36) celebrates after returning a blocked field goal 75-yards for a touchdown during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)