Willie Taggart’s inaugural FSU game still better than his USF debut

First-year Florida State coach Willie Taggart likely wishes he could look away during much of the game, which is plagued by offensive futility. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
First-year Florida State coach Willie Taggart likely wishes he could look away during much of the game, which is plagued by offensive futility. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published September 3 2018

TALLAHASSEE — He was worried about tripping during his pre-kickoff emergence from Doak Campbell Stadium's north tunnel. For all his recent sizzle, Willie Taggart remains college football's foremost authority on ghastly first impressions.

"Got to look like an athlete (coming out)," Taggart said last week.
Still, Taggart stumbled, if only figuratively. Not even Monday night's assemblage of icons, from Bobby Bowden to Peter Warrick to Derrick Brooks, could break his fall.

Before you could say McNeese State, Virginia Tech was leading the 'Noles by double digit en route to a 24-3 smackdown, and the Taggart honeymoon was on the clock.

The Hokies took the opening kickoff and promptly drove 75 yards in 10 plays, mixing sideline routes with gashing runs. Then on FSU's fourth offensive play, receiver Nyqwan Murray fumbled. A missed chip shot (32 yards) by veteran kicker Ricky Aguayo followed.

Somewhere amid this extended funk, a brief rain shower arrived.

Then it poured.

With 3:57 to play in the first half, Hokies tight end Chris Cunningham got his hands on a Logan Tyler punt near the 'Noles 2-yard line, and teammate Eric Kumah snagged it in the air and trotted into the end zone. The next FSU offensive play, Deondre Francois was intercepted.

At least Taggart didn't trip on his way back into the tunnel, after Virginia Tech had taken a 17-3 halftime lead.

Which leads us back to McNeese, the most wretched evening of Taggart's coaching life. Things never got that dark Monday. How could they?

USF fans still cringe at the half-decade memory. In Taggart's inaugural game as Bulls coach, the Bulls were run out of Raymond James Stadium by a Division I-AA foe. USF scored on an 80-yard run on its first offensive play, then watched McNeese reel off 40 unanswered points en route to a 53-21 embarrassment.

"It was totally unexpected," Taggart said that night.

Monday's opening jitters weren't. While still teeming with talent, FSU remains more green than garnet in some respects.

It must replenish a defense that lost seven starters. Moreover, few expected Taggart's offensive scheme — sort of a hybrid of the Gulf Coast offense and the old Baylor system — to click right away.

Francois was under duress most of the night, and his run game was mostly invisible. Sophomore Cam Akers, a 1,000-yard rusher last year, broke loose for an 85-yard run in the fourth quarter, but fumbled on third and goal near the 10 after taking a direct snap and attempting a handoff.

Also worth noting: Virginia Tech is ranked 20th. The Hokies had more tackles for loss (12) than FSU had first downs (11) entering the final quarter.

Conventional thought is, Taggart will stabilize things in Tallahassee, and perhaps propel the 'Noles back into the top-five stratosphere. Eventually.
He has recruited too well, endeared himself too graciously to his fan base and made too many solid PR moves (including a $1 million personal donation to FSU's proposed palatial football center).

"The things that he's doing with this team, it's special," said former two-time All-American receiver Peter Warrick, whose No. 9 jersey was retired at halftime. "When I go out to practice, it's totally different and I respect what he's doing."

Warrick's former coach agreed.

"In my opinion, he's done everything that you need to do to get a program going," said Bowden, named an honorary captain (with former Virginia Tech counterpart Frank Beamer) for Monday's game. "Now that doesn't mean you're gonna win right off, but I'm convinced — the more I see him — he is gonna win."

Even if the beginning features a few nasty stumbles.