TAMPA — Led by their coach, USF's players emerged from their tunnel after a 69-minute weather delay Saturday and made a beeline for the north end zone, where they slapped fives and ingested the adulation of those shoehorned into the Bulls' student section.
More than an hour — an excruciating one — would elapse before the Bulls returned to that end zone. A freshman led them there.
With boos rapidly filling the same air through which thunder had previously rumbled, rookie tailback Marlon Mack helped transform them into roars, and helped the Bulls sidestep a second consecutive season-opening embarrassment.
Mack's four rushing touchdowns — three of them 56 yards or more — lifted USF (1-0) to a 36-31 victory against Division I-AA doormat Western Carolina before an announced audience of 31,651.
A game-day replacement in the starting lineup for sophomore Darius Tice (knee), Mack finished with 24 carries for 275 yards, equaling Andre Hall's 10-year-old school single-game mark and setting a new American Athletic Conference mark.
"That was a show," said coach Willie Taggart said. "I told our football team before the game that some people show up under the spotlight and some people run away. The spotlight came and he showed up and showed out."
The rest of the offense? Well, for all the shine on the golden helmets the Bulls unveiled, the passing game behind sophomore quarterback Mike White remains smudged. Despite scoring the most points of the Taggart era, the Bulls still must find their timing and, possibly, a temporary replacement for senior wideout Andre Davis (sternum) and left guard Thor Jozwiak (shoulder).
"We were just off. We just weren't executing at all," Taggart said.
Meantime, USF's new 3-4 alignment, installed to put more athletes on the field and neutralize spread formations, often seemed perplexed by the Catamounts, who opened a 14-3 early lead and finished with nearly 400 yards.
After a fumble (forced by Hillsborough High alumnus Nigel Harris) and interception (by Pasco High's Jamie Byrd) on their first two possessions, the Catamounts put together TD drives of 58 and 88 yards.
By halftime, 6-foot junior quarterback Troy Mitchell had completed 22 of 30 passes for 198 yards, connecting with six receivers. He resuscitated his team with a 17-play scoring drive capped by his TD strike to Spearman Robinson on fourth-and-6 with 6:06 to play, cutting WCU's deficit to 30-24.
"He did a great job scrambling," said Byrd, a junior college transfer who had a team-best 11 tackles in his USF debut. "We were kind of playing them a little soft and they kept checking bubble screen after bubble screen."
While Mitchell sparkled, his counterpart mostly stumbled.
Struggling to set his feet or find his rhythm, White (9-for-26, 181 yards, one INT) completed five of his first 19 passes. He didn't toss a pass for positive yardage to a receiver until his 32-yarder to tight end Sean Price in the left flat six minutes into the second half.
That drive, like two others in the opening half, ended with Marvin Kloss field goals. Twice in the half, USF moved inside WCU's 15 only to settle for Kloss conversions, the last of which cut USF's deficit to 17-16 at the half.
"Some of the throws (White) was making, I'd never seen him throw the ball like that before," Taggart said. "I just told Mike to settle down. And then when Thor got hurt we had some guys moving around up front and that caused a lot of problems. ... All at one time, things just weren't going our way."
But unlike last fall, the Bulls had backfield burst to salvage them.
On his fifth carry of the second half, Mack made a juke at the line, slithered through a seam and dashed for a 60-yard TD for a lead the Bulls wouldn't relinquish.
Two drives later, on the Bulls' most promising possession of the night, he sandwiched a 17-yard run between White's completions of 33 and 35 yards to Rodney Adams and Deonte Welch, respectively. Mack then finished the drive with a 3-yard TD run, giving USF a 30-17 lead.
His final encore came three plays after Smith's fourth-down TD strike to Robinson, when he sprinted down the Bulls' sideline for a 56-yard TD.
And for one night, the Bulls had outrun every demon, including adversity.
"I didn't see anybody put their head down on the sideline when it was tough, I didn't hear anybody arguing with someone else," Taggart said.
"I heard a lot of guys encouraging each other, and it paid off for us."