TAMPA — The result on the scoreboard was the same, but the consolation in last week's USF loss at Michigan State was that the Bulls' defense took a significant step, allowing one offensive touchdown, and in the fourth quarter at that.
USF's hope then, as the Bulls work to get coach Willie Taggart his first win on the job, is that the offense can take the same leap forward today at home against Florida Atlantic.
"When you look at the overall picture of what we tried to do last week, our defense took it to heart. They wanted to get better. They went in and improved where we said we needed to improve," Taggart said. "(The offense) can look at it as a learning experience, say, 'Hey, if we do exactly what our D did this past week, we'll get the result.' "
The offense, of course, did not improve against the Spartans. The Bulls went 6-for-26 passing for just 66 yards, with quarterback Bobby Eveld constantly facing pressure that kept plays from developing. Take away one possession after a Michigan State special-teams turnover, and the Bulls never got as close as the Spartans' 30-yard line. The Bulls needed 5 or fewer yards for a first down on just five of 61 offensive plays.
On game tape, USF coaches consistently saw 10 players doing the right things, derailed by one who wasn't — six penalties, dropped passes, missed assignments in picking up blitzes, a parade of single mistakes that stifled an offense.
"As bad as it looked, it was one guy here and one guy there. If we can get our guys to play with synergy, to trust each other more, then we'll get better results," Taggart said. "A big part of it was not trusting each other, counting on teammates. That ended up hurting us."
Taggart's top priority is eliminating turnovers that resulted in three defensive touchdowns against the Bulls — Bobby Eveld was blindsided twice at Michigan State, with those returns accounting for 14 of the Spartans' 21 points. Taggart is sticking with Eveld, hoping that improved play around him will help him run the offense with some level of effectiveness.
"We just have to get in synch together," offensive coordinator Walt Wells said. "It's a different part every time that keeps messing up. We all have to get on the same page. You could see at times where we were. We were playing physical, doing some of the things we want to do. There were times, obviously, when we weren't."
McNeese State was certainly a team USF should have beaten, and the Cowboys dominated in a shocking 53-21 win. FAU comes to town in similar position — since 2008, the Owls have 14 consecutive losses to teams from the top six conferences, all by at least 13 points and by an average of 39-8.
USF has the American Athletic Conference's No. 2 rusher in senior Marcus Shaw (239 yards), who just missed his second straight 100-yard game Saturday. Michigan State might be the toughest defense USF plays this season, especially for the offensive line, which has a chance face an Owls rush defense that ranks 95th in the country.
But much more than the opponent has to change for USF to get where it needs to be.
"The defense did show up last week, and the offense needs to step up and play like we want to," left tackle Darrell Williams said. "We made a lot of mistakes. … 0-2 is not where we thought we'd be. We brought Coach Taggart in to win, so we need to listen to what he says and execute. It comes down to execution."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3346. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.
Today's major state games
No. 10 FSU vs. Nevada, 3:30 p.m., Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee
TV/radio: ESPN, 820-AM
Line: FSU by 351/2
Weather: 90, partly cloudy, 30 percent chance of thunderstorms, wind 4 mph
USF vs. Florida Atlantic, 7 p.m., Raymond James Stadium
Radio: 98.7-FM, 1010-AM (No TV)
Line: USF by 121/2
Weather: 86, partly cloudy, 20 percent chance of thunderstorms, wind 7 mph
UCF at Penn State, 6 p.m., Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
TV: Big Ten 2
Line: Penn State by 5
Weather: 65, sunny, no rain, wind 8 mph