It was an ugly, embarrassing home loss for Willie Taggart, whose team had been struggling but didn't expect to be dominated at the hands of a Division I-AA program.
"It was horrible, one of the worst days of my life," USF's coach said.
But he wasn't referring to Saturday's humbling 53-21 loss to McNeese State in his debut, the Bulls' 10th loss in their past 11 games.
He was speaking about a 2011 loss he took as Western Kentucky's coach against I-AA Indiana State, which came in during his second season and beat the host Hilltoppers 44-16. The game was much like Saturday's — the Sycamores jumped to a 34-3 lead, taking advantage of four turnovers.
Where Taggart can only hope the parallels continue is how his WKU team responded — he fell to 2-13 as a head coach, but the 'Toppers turned it around, winning seven of their last nine games that season to finish 7-5, then going 7-6 in 2012 before he came to USF. The loss wasn't pretty or anything a coach would want, but it served as a galvanizing wake-up call.
"I've been on this side before. I think that's why it's a little easier to handle now, understanding there are brighter days ahead," Taggart said Tuesday. "Sometimes you have to hit the lowest point before something really good happens for you. … We're going to keep climbing out of this mess. We're going to make this place something special."
As McNeese rattled off 40 consecutive points against the Bulls, Taggart said he saw the same things he saw in the Indiana State game — "a lot of bickering, a lot of pointing fingers." It was a game he didn't want to revisit, but the similarities are easy for him to spot. He just hopes the aftermath is similar for his new team.
"That team came in and hit us in the mouth, and we didn't know how to respond," he said. "The biggest thing for us is to learn from our mistakes."
Taggart likes to reference a quote on a sign on his desk: "Climbing is easier than hanging on." At a time when some fans worry about a free fall, he's working to keep his players focused on reaching higher ground.
MORE BIG TEN: Saturday will be just the second time USF has faced a Big Ten team, following a 2005 loss at Penn State, but it opens a stretch of 10 games against Big Ten opponents over the next six seasons.
On Tuesday, USF announced a home-and-home series with Illinois in 2017-18. The school added series with Michigan State and Indiana years ago — the original MSU connection was Spartans coach John L. Smith, who was at Washington State when USF athletic director Doug Woolard worked there — and this spring added series with Wisconsin and soon-to-be Big Ten member Maryland.
These give USF much-needed national games to offset lighter schedules in the American Athletic Conference. And the Big Ten schools have strong fan bases to help with crowds, as seen at the Outback Bowl over the years.
Along with a home-and-home with Florida State signed in the spring, these games give USF a chance at national relevance, which is all the more important as their conference battles for respect outside the NCAA's biggest five conferences.
THIS AND THAT: DE Aaron Lynch had an underwhelming debut, totaling three tackles Saturday, but he has experience against Michigan State. As a freshman at Notre Dame in 2011, Lynch had five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, plus six quarterback hurries in the Fighting Irish's win in South Bend. … As a result of adding the Big Ten games, USF will shift a scheduled home game against Nevada from 2015 until 2020, a full eight years after the Bulls went to Reno and pulled out a last-minute comeback.
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.