Jones: USF plays up to par in season opener, now aim higher

South Florida Bulls linebacker Nigel Harris (57) runs the ball back for large gain against the Towson Tigers defense in the second quarter at Raymond James in Tampa on Saturday, September 3, 2016.
South Florida Bulls linebacker Nigel Harris (57) runs the ball back for large gain against the Towson Tigers defense in the second quarter at Raymond James in Tampa on Saturday, September 3, 2016.
Published Sept. 4, 2016

TAMPA — It's good to be Willie Taggart.

The USF coach got a first look at his highly advertised 2016 Bulls on Saturday night and it was pretty much what he was hoping for. USF 56, Towson 20.

Okay, so it was Division I-AA Towson. Not exactly a college football power. Not exactly Alabama or Ohio State. In fact, USF won't play a lighter opponent this season.

Still. It was a nice start to a season full of high hopes and lofty expectations.

Not perfect, mind you. Not without some hiccups. But, overall, pretty good.

Taggart might have something here.

He watched his sensational running back Marlon Mack run like a Mack truck for a half. He saw his dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers use his arm and legs to carve up the Towson defense.

He watched receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling run wind sprints through the Towson secondary. And Taggart saw his own swarming defense do a solid job against the Tigers, including a monster game from linebacker Nigel Harris.

If USF's performance was a Facebook post, fans would definitely hit "Like."

In other words, about what you would expect.

And speaking of expectations, everyone thinks the Bulls have a chance to be a pretty good football team. They're favorites to win a division title, a contender for the American Athletic Conference title.

Saturday night's opener would not dissuade anyone from thinking that.

So, yeah, it's good to be Willie Taggart.

You would not have said that midway through last season.

Frankly, it's a bit surprising Taggart is still here. Last season he seemed this close to getting fired. After a disappointing home loss to Memphis, his Bulls were 1-3. Taggart was 7-21 as USF coach. It was a program stuck in neutral. Going nowhere. Most blamed Taggart. That's how it works. Blame the coach.

Taggart's seat was well beyond hot. I still believe if the Bulls had lost to Syracuse on Oct. 10, Taggart was gone.

But the Bulls won. Then won the next week. And the week after that.

They ended up winning seven of their last eight regular-season games, including an upset of ranked Temple. They went to a bowl game.

Season saved. Job saved. Program restored.

Thanks to Taggart. Less than two months after he looked to be in over his head at USF, he was riding a wave of success. He was a coach who went from down-and-out to, once again, up-and-coming.

Credit USF for standing by its man. And credit Taggart for sticking to his plan.

Taggart knew it would take a while to change the losing culture that had set in during the last agonizing days of the mostly dreadful Skip Holtz era. He knew there would lumps and losses along the way. He knew that, in order to grow, there would be growing pains. He had to recruit better than Holtz did, especially around here.

USF stayed patient with Taggart, and Taggart stayed patient with his team. Turns out, everyone made the right call. Taggart now looks like the right man for the job.

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But let's not separate our shoulders patting everyone on the back just yet. Taggart still has more work left to do. His Bulls are far from perfect.

Perhaps you can chalk it all up to first-game jitters and opening-game rust. Yet some of the things we saw are some of the fears that you might have about USF coming into this season.

Start with the quarterback. Flowers remains a better runner than passer. He still can be a touch inaccurate. He made a couple of big-time throws, including a slick 51-yard touchdown strike that hit a blazing Valdes-Scantling in perfect stride. But he also will occasionally miss open receivers, and he's going to have to be better when the schedule gets tougher.

Mack was shaken up on a big hit in the second quarter and did not come back. The offense didn't miss a beat without him, but you do get the sense that if he was to go down for a while, he would take a big chunk of the offense with him.

The special teams were sloppy. The defense gave up a couple of big plays, which is going to happen. That's football. But when it happens a little too often against a little guy like Towson, you hold your breath.

That's because bigger tests are coming. The Bulls head to Syracuse in two weeks. Florida State comes to Raymond James the week after that. Trips to Cincinnati and Temple are down the line. Heck, better not sleep on Northern Illinois next week.

USF must do much better in those games than it did Saturday night against Towson. Dreams of a program-first conference championship seem a long way off, especially after seeing what conference-rival Houston did to No. 3 Oklahoma on Saturday.

But the arrow on USF is pointed up. This is probably the best USF fans can feel about this program since the early days of Holtz. We're talking way back in 2010.

A big reason why is Taggart.

It's good to be Willie Taggart.

And it's good for USF that Willie Taggart is its coach.