Taggart era starts with 53-21 loss to McNeese State
TAMPA -- It started so well, like the summer's viral-video magic bus ride, with an 80-yard touchdown by Marcus Shaw on USF's first offensive play.
The Willie Taggart "Do Something" era was off and running -- the Bulls defense even had an interception, so hard to come by last season.
Then the wheels came off. Very quickly, you remembered, this is why buses stop at railroad tracks. Suddenly, this was "Redo Something."
McNeese State, a I-AA program that came to town as a three-touchdown underdog, scored the next 40 points. The Cowboys scored a USF-opponent-record 31 points in the second quarter, punctuated by a 76-yard interception return for a score with 12 seconds left in the half. By the time it was over, the Bulls had easily the most embarrassing loss in their 17-season history, a 53-21 humbling at Raymond James Stadium.
"This was my biggest nightmare," said Taggart, who opened his comments with an apology "to Bulls nation" for "a piss-poor effort from our guys." "It was totally unexpected. We played a lot better than that throughout training camp. For me, just watching the game ... we folded. We did not continue to play with great effort."
USF came into the game 23-0 as a I-A program against I-AA opponents, having won the last nine such games by an average of 37.8 points. They had to work in the fourth quarter to avoid losing by a similar margin, believed to be the most lopsided ever by a I-AA against a major-conference I-A team. It's also the first loss in a USF home opener.
"We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds, but we're not going to quit," said linebacker Reshard Cliett, who had a team-best eight tackles. "I'm pretty shocked. It hurt, hurt pretty bad. We have to stay and have each other's backs."
Sophomore Matt Floyd, crowned the starting quarterback and a team captain just this past week, threw back-to-back interceptions and was replaced in the third quarter by senior Bobby Eveld, who had two touchdown passes, far too late.
USF's defense, hoping to build a different identity from last season's disappointment, instead saw 53 points on the scoreboard, the most ever allowed in a Bulls home game, second overall only to Oregon's 56 in the 2007 Sun Bowl.
"I looked it after the game and just stared at it. I wanted to burn it in my memory 'cause I don't ever want to see that again," senior safety Mark Joyce said. "It was terrible. The defense didn't play well at all. It only counts as one loss, so we have the whole season ahead of us, but we have to come ready to work tomorrow."
The arrival of Taggart -- who had turned Western Kentucky from a team with 20 straight losses into a bowl team -- had brought high expectations from Bulls fans, even after a 3-9 season. Now, after one game and one terrible loss, there's a question of how much progress a new coach can make in one season.
The Bulls (0-1) were only outgained 201-171 in the first half, but they trailed 33-7 on the scoreboard. Three turnovers killed the Bulls in the worst way -- Shaw fumbled inside the 10-yard line, setting up a 7-yard touchdown drive, and Floyd had one interception returned for a touchdown, another that set McNeese up for a 16-yard touchdown drive.
That still only covered 21 McNeese points. The defense gave up a 91-yard touchdown drive all by itself, with the Cowboys needing only one third in marching down the field. Taggart came in saying he wanted a physical running game, and Shaw had 140 yards at halftime. But the Bulls went just 1-for-7 on third downs in the half, their only points coming on that promising first run.
Shaw, taking over as starting running back, had 192 yards of total offense, but there was little else to show for USF. Floyd finished 9-for-20 for 72 yards, his two interceptions the single biggest thing Taggart said he needed his quarterbacks to avoid. Eveld looked poised in relief, throwing for 137 yards, but Taggart wouldn't name a starter, saying he'll evaluate both this week.
"I know exactly where this team is now after this first game," Taggart said, speaking of the team as a whole. "We're nowhere near where we need to be. Our team is mentally fragile right now. We've got to get ourselves right. ... We've got to get there, and we will get there. We'll get there with the right guys."
All the optimism built up in nine months since Taggart's hiring is gone, and if the Bulls struggled at home against a I-AA program, there's no telling what will happen next weekend, when USF travels to face Michigan State in a Big Ten stadium with 70,000-plus fans. Nearly anything would be better than Saturday's debut.
"I was concerned about it, preached it to our guys since Day 1," he said. "Things were peaches and cream, but I think it's always a concern when you have a team that hasn't won in a while: How are you going to respond when things get tough? It tests your character, and how good you're going to be as a football team."