TAMPA — He was thrust into the lineup in his first collegiate game at the 11th hour, which might partially explain why he was making history by the 12th.
Literally, USF's Marlon Mack didn't have time to think about it. No time to ponder or panic, to stress or psyche himself out. When it was clear tailback Darius Tice's tweaked knee wouldn't allow him to effectively make cuts on the Raymond James Stadium turf Saturday night, Mack and fellow freshman D'Ernest Johnson got their marching orders: suit up, warm up and step up.
"I brought the young running backs in my office, told 'em a couple of jokes and tried to get 'em relaxed," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said. "I told 'em it was okay to be nervous … but go out and play football. That's one thing you all know how to do."
A few hours later, Mack, a consensus four-star recruit from Sarasota, had evolved from freshman to folk hero. His 275 yards — on 24 carries — tied Andre Hall's school record, and his 280 all-purpose yards eclipsed Hall's 10-year-old record of 274.
For added measure, his four touchdowns — three of 56 or more yards — saved USF from a second straight opening-night home loss to a Division I-AA team. Not until Mack's 56-yard score with 4:40 to play was a 36-31 victory against Western Carolina secured.
"He … showed everyone what the team knew he could do since we saw him in camp," USF quarterback Mike White said.
Upon snapping out of their Mack stupor, Bulls fans, who last year saw a 53-21 loss to McNeese State on opening night, will have plenty over which to brood before Maryland arrives next weekend.
White (9-for-26, 181 yards, one interception) struggled to find a rhythm and steady protection. Receiver Andre Davis (sternum) and left guard Thor Jozwiak (shoulder) were banged up, and the Bulls' newfangled 3-4 defense surrendered 454 yards to a I-AA team coming off a 2-10 season.
"We didn't contain the quarterback (Troy Mitchell) and let him run around a little bit," Taggart said. "He was able to buy a little time and get some guys open, which we knew that was one thing he was good at."
But for a program in dire need of positive strides, this was one on which the Bulls, who scored the most points and collected the most yards (454) in Taggart's one-plus season, can build.
In an effort to forge ahead, Taggart likely has summoned Mack to his office and encouraged him to take a postgame approach similar to his pregame one.
Don't think about it.