Two key Bulls won't be MIA this year vs. Florida State

Published Sept. 23, 2016

TAMPA — The line separating explanation from excuse is blurry, at best, with the former frequently construed as the latter.

So why bother with either? In the case of USF's 20-point loss in Tallahassee last year, the Bulls aren't. On that overcast September day, Florida State tailback Dalvin Cook gashed them for 266 rushing yards. USF didn't tackle, tend to gap responsibilities or sustain lengthy offensive drives to keep Cook off the field.

"You get it to him so many times, eventually he's going to break one," coach Willie Taggart said.

But here's where it gets tricky. To candidly assess last year's 34-14 Seminoles triumph, facts simply can't be sifted out with excuses, and one glaring fact remains: Two of the Bulls' defensive pillars — who happen to be the top two tacklers this year — watched all or part of the game on a flat-screen and a phone, respectively.

For that pair, fourth-year junior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez and senior outside linebacker Nigel Harris, Saturday's rematch has sped past pivotal and whizzed past paramount.

To them, it's personal.

"Still to this day, it makes me a little upset," Sanchez said.

"Nigel's gonna be turned up to probably the fullest," said Harris' dad, Lindsey. "I mean, Nigel's very even-keeled, but this game, it's almost personal to him. So this is gonna be a game where you all get a chance to see Nigel probably in no way that you've ever seen him before."

In last season's meeting, Bulls fans didn't see him at all.

Harris was serving the second of a two-game suspension — with senior backup Tashon Whitehurst — and didn't make the trip. He said his suspension stemmed from being "boneheaded, trying to enjoy college to the very fullest. For real, that's what it was honestly, so I learned my lesson."

The hard way.

The Hillsborough High alumnus, who had started 18 games his first two seasons, grimaced his way through the FSU contest from his boyhood home in Palmetto Beach, just south of Ybor City. Senior C.J. Garye, who entered the game with 10 career tackles, made his second career start, in place of Harris and Whitehurst.

"He wanted to be there," Lindsey Harris said. "(Home) was the next-best place for him other than hanging out on campus being all depressed. … He recognized what had to happen."

By halftime, Harris had seen his teammates hold their own — playing FSU to a 7-7 tie — despite 115 rushing yards from Cook. FSU still led only 17-7 when the game's complexion was significantly altered.

The 'Noles faced third and 12 from their 34 when quarterback Everett Golson tossed an incompletion on a rollout to his right. Upon his release, Sanchez nailed Golson with what appeared to be a right-shoulder-pad shot to the sternum. Upon a review, officials ruled Sanchez targeted Golson and ejected him.

FSU scored four plays later to take a 24-7 lead. Sanchez said the play later was sent to the American Athletic Conference office (an AAC crew officiated the game), which determined Sanchez didn't target Golson.

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"I just sat in the locker room mad, upset," said Sanchez, who watched the rest of the game on his phone. "Just said some bad things to myself in there, took a shower and then was ready to get on the bus ride home."

Replacing Sanchez were freshman Danny Thomas and redshirt freshman Nick Holman, both of whom were playing in their second career college game. From that point, Golson — 1-of-9 in the first half — completed 9 of 10 passes for 111 yards.

Cook, meantime, was held mainly in check the rest of the way, save for a late 37-yard touchdown run.

"It hurts not having one of your better players on the field against one of the top programs like FSU, so that hurt us big-time," Taggart said.

"I think if anything, it hurt us on that play where it was a third down and we couldn't get off the field. We got the penalty and that momentum allowed them to stay on the field and keep momentum in that ball game. But I don't think it necessarily changed what we wanted to do defensively."

Posterity can deliberate over how much — or even if — the outcome would have been altered with a full complement of Bulls linebackers. At this point, no sense making conjecture, excuses or explanations.

Making amends, however, is another matter.

"I was feeling sad and what not (last year), but that was my fault," Harris said. "So I'm ready to get out there Saturday."

Contact Joey Knight at