Skip Holtz came to South Florida in a tough spot, replacing a popular coach whose firing left some bad feelings in the locker room. The 3-3 start fueled by a shaky offense didn't help matters.
Slowly, Holtz got a grip on the young program and thanks to an impressive comeback from an injury by his quarterback, the Bulls have reached another milestone.
B.J. Daniels threw two touchdowns passes and ran for a third and in South Florida's 31-26 victory over Clemson on Friday in the Meineke Bowl that gave Holtz a strong finish to his first season and left his team full of smiles.
"We are all so happy to be here," Daniels said. "The coaches have been so supportive and have put a lot of confidence in us."
Mo Plancher also ran for a score for the Bulls (8-5), who took control after Tigers quarterback Kyle Parker left at halftime with a cracked rib. South Florida secured its fifth straight eight-win season and earned its first bowl win over a team from a BCS automatic-qualifying league.
"It was really a great team effort all the way around," said Holtz, who helped the beleaguered Big East move to 3-1 in bowls.
Holtz's grin was in stark contrast to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney after a bad ending to a rough season that left him not ruling out changes to his coaching staff. The Tigers were 2-0 before an overtime loss to No. 1 Auburn set off an avalanche of bad news and losses.
"I'm going to do everything within my power to make sure that I get us better as a football team and that this never happens again," Swinney said.
Parker's final game before embarking on a baseball career ended abruptly when he was tackled near the goal line at the end of the second quarter.
Backup Tajh Boyd was picked off by JaQuez Jenkins on the first play of the fourth. His 48-yard return set up Daniels' 8-yard TD run to make it 31-13 and gave the Tigers (6-7) their first losing season in 11 years.
It was a triumphant return to North Carolina for Holtz, who left East Carolina in January to take over at South Florida after coach Jim Leavitt's surprise ouster after he was accused of mistreating a player left a divided locker room.
Holtz had insisted all week he'd split the snaps between Daniels, who had missed the regular-season finale against Connecticut with a thigh injury, and freshman walk-on Bobby Eveld.
But a steady Daniels didn't need to share, completing 20 of 27 passes for 189 yards and an interception to win the MVP award.
"B.J. is a veteran and I made the comment we were going to need his feet with this defensive front with the way they get after the passer," Holtz said. "I thought he did a great job out there today. He made some super decisions."
It wasn't the final season Parker had in mind when the first-round pick forfeited $800,000 from the Colorado Rockies to put off baseball for a year. After getting benched in the regular-season finale against South Carolina, he contemplated skipping the bowl game.
Turned out, he was done at halftime after completed 11 of 17 passes for 134 yards and an interception. He finished with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
"Nothing really went the way I wanted it to this year," Parker said. "Obviously I'll learn from it, move on, and get healthy and just try to continue on a different path."
South Florida stormed to a 17-3 second-quarter lead behind Daniels' TD passes to Demetris Murray and Dontavia Bogan. The Bulls added a field goal following Quenton Washington's 45-yard interception return.
Parker led two scoring drives to end the first half, but he was hurt on a 1-yard run before Jamie Harper punched it in from yard out to make it 17-13 at halftime.
"It was kind of where I took that shot earlier," said Parker, who suffered bruised ribs in the Auburn loss.
Plancher's 2-yard TD run early in the third quarter gave South Florida a comfortable cushion again and the elusive Daniels was able to keep Clemson's stout defense at bay.
Da'Quan Bowers, who came in with a nation-best 15½ sacks, never got to Daniels and failed to set the school's single-season sacks record in what might be his final college game. Bowers is projected to be a high first-round draft pick.
"I'm just going to take some days, get to myself and think about my situation," Bowers said.
Clemson made a last-gasp comeback bid. Boyd threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Ford with 1:47 left.
The Tigers recovered the onside kick and Boyd found Ford again for a 10-yard TD. But Clemson's second onside kick was touched by the Tigers about a half yard short of the 10 it needed to travel and USF took over.
Clemsons's difficult season ended with small group of its disgruntled fans making the 2½ drive to Charlotte to see them. Fewer than 40,000 came through the turnstiles in the lowest-attended game in the bowl's nine-year history.
"I don't blame the fans one bit for being ticked off," Swinney said. "They should be ticked off. I'm going to do everything I can to make us better."