TAMPA, Florida — The race for the American Athletic Conference title is bringing out the best in surging South Florida.
The Bulls (7-4, 5-2) won for the sixth time in seven games Friday night, overwhelming Cincinnati 65-27 to remain in contention for a berth in the inaugural American championship game.
Quinton Flowers threw four touchdown passes and Marlon Mack topped 100 yards rushing for the seventh time this season for USF, which has rebounded from 1-3 start to become bowl-eligible for the first time in five years and keep its hopes for a conference championship alive.
"You saw a team motivated to reach its goal," third-year coach Willie Taggart said. "It's a confident group that's grown up, highly motivated and that likes to win."
The second-place Bulls will close the regular season at winless Central Florida and need to beat the Knights, as well have division leader Temple lose at least one of its final two games to clinch a spot in the league title game.
"I'm really trying not to worry about that right now. I'm just focusing on playing UCF," Flowers said. "That's our next game. That's the only thing we're focusing on right now."
Cincinnati (6-5, 3-4) was eliminated from the division race. The Bearcats had won three of four to give them an outside chance of squeezing back into the title mix, but gave up a long touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage and turned the ball over on their first two offensive possessions to help USF build a quick 20-0 lead.
"You can't throw the ball to the other team, and you can't give up big plays," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. "That first play of the game just set the tone. It was a simple play that they've run all year long, and we had a guy that's got his eyes on the wrong person and just flat turned him loose."
Flowers completed 9 of 15 passes for 165 yards and was intercepted twice. He threw TD passes of 67 yards to Rodney Adams, 6 and 46 yards to Sean Price and 1 yard to Jordan Reed.
A week after rushing for 230 yards and scoring three TDs in USF's 44-23 upset of then-No. 21 Temple, Mack ran for 106 yards on 11 carries and scored two touchdowns before he and Flowers sat most of the second half. It was the seventh 100-yard performance of the year for the conference's leading rusher.
Cincinnati star Gunner Kiel was benched after throwing two first-quarter interceptions, finishing 8 of 15 for 84 yards. Backup Hayden Moore lost a fumble and threw a second-quarter interception that USF's Deatrick Nichols returned 29 yards to make it 34-0.
Moore played the final three quarters, finishing 20 of 36 passing for 249 yards, including a 54-yard scoring pass to Chris Moore, who broke Mardy Gilyard's school record to career TD receptions with his 26th.
"When you play that bad on both sides of the ball, that's going to happen to you," Tuberville said. "And we played awful. Coached and played awful."
Tion Green scored second-half TDs on runs of 2 and 11 yards for the Bearcats, who trailed 51-3 at halftime. Chris Moore wound up with six catches for 131 yards.
For the second straight week, USF was virtually unstoppable on offense in the opening half. The Bulls scored on five straight possessions while building a 31-10 halftime lead over Temple and were even more impressive Friday night, scoring on their first four possessions and seven of eight overall in putting up a school-record 51 in the first two quarters.
About the only things that didn't go right for the Bulls before the break was a blocked extra-point following Adams' TD reception on the night's first play from scrimmage and an end-zone interception that thwarted a scoring opportunity with USF already up 27-0.
Cincinnati entered ranked fourth nationally in total offense, averaging 585.6 yards per game. But the Bearcats didn't establish any kind of rhythm until the second half.