Everybody at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night knew USF had a new coach in Skip Holtz. But by the end, as the Bulls wrapped up a 59-14 rout of Division I-AA Stony Brook, what was exciting was how many new faces stepped up and made plays for their new coach.
"I would imagine program sales were high tonight, with all the bodies who played and all the different people that made some plays on the field," said Holtz, who saw 23 players make their Bulls debut, including five promising true freshmen.
Aside from problems fielding punts, it was hard for Bulls fans to complain too much about the start of the Holtz era. Two special-teams mistakes put USF in a 14-7 hole, but quarterback B.J. Daniels guided the new offense with precision, throwing for two touchdowns and running for one to build a 31-14 halftime lead.
"There are probably a million things I could sit here and harp on and be negative about, things we have to correct, but the goal was 1-0 and we're 1-0," Holtz said.
USF muffed two punts and lost a fumble on another, and punter Justin Brockhaus-Kann was ruled down as he knelt to field a low snap, setting up a short field for Stony Brook's go-ahead touchdown.
Daniels' best work came in the final 1:33 of the first half, when the Bulls got the ball at their 39-yard line after losing 13 yards on a muffed punt return. Take away two spikes to kill the clock, and Daniels went 5-for-6 for 57 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown to former walk-on Joel Miller with six seconds left.
"The only team that can beat us is us in our minds. That's our mind-set, every game," Daniels said.
It wasn't all bad on special teams, as a high Stony Brook snap allowed Lakewood's JaQuez Jenkins to block a punt in the end zone, with walk-on Chris Lane recovering the loose ball for a Bulls touchdown.
Senior Mo Plancher ran for a score in the third quarter. That let Daniels (15-for-22 for 264 yards) call it a night.
From there, the freshmen took over. Walk-on Bobby Eveld threw a 25-yard touchdown to running back Demetris Murray. Safety Mark Joyce took an interception that caromed off a lineman's helmet and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown. Running back Marcus Shaw had a 63-yard touchdown run for the final points.
"Great to see some of these young kids come to the party," said Holtz, who also got four catches for 48 yards from freshman walk-on receiver Stephen Bravo-Brown.
The Seawolves' two first-quarter scoring drives were just 35 and 27 yards, so if special-teams mistakes are overlooked, the defense held its own in its first game under coordinator Mark Snyder.
"We were confronted with some change-of-momentum situations, and we need to work on responding better to those," said sophomore Mike Lanaris, who made his first career start at middle linebacker and had the first of USF's four interceptions. "Two big plays in a lot of games will get you beat, but we're going to get those things corrected."
The game drew an announced 40,201, slightly less than last year's opener against I-AA Wofford. It was a promising debut for Holtz, who was hired to replace Jim Leavitt in January.
The Bulls go from their easiest game of the season to arguably their hardest, with a long-awaited trip to Gainesville to face Florida.
"Florida's obviously a great team, and we have a heck of a week ahead of us to get ready for them," Lanaris said. "It was good to get this one in the books and get a feel for everything."