TAMPA — It started so well, like the summer's viral-video magic bus ride, with an 80-yard touchdown by Marcus Shaw on USF's first offensive play.
The Willie Taggart "Do Something" era was off and running — the Bulls defense even had an interception, so hard to come by last season.
Then the wheels came off. Very quickly, you remembered: This is why buses stop at railroad tracks. Suddenly, this was "Redo Something."
McNeese State, a Division I-AA program that came to town as a three-touchdown underdog, scored the next 40 points. The Cowboys scored a USF-opponent-record 31 points in the second quarter, punctuated by a 76-yard interception return for a score with 12 seconds left in the half. By the time it was over, the Bulls had easily the most embarrassing loss in their 17-season history, a 53-21 drubbing in their season opener at Raymond James Stadium.
"This was my biggest nightmare," said Taggart, who opened his comments with an apology "to Bulls nation (for) a (very) poor effort from our guys.
"It was totally unexpected. We played a lot better than that throughout training camp. For me, just watching the game … we folded. We did not continue to play with great effort. We did have some guys that quit on us. We're not going to allow that."
USF, which paid McNeese $400,000 to play, came in 23-0 as a I-A program against I-AA foes, having won the last nine such games by an average of 37.8 points. They had to work in the fourth quarter to avoid losing by a similar margin. It's also USF's first loss in a home opener.
"We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds, but we're not going to quit," said linebacker Reshard Cliett, who had a team-best eight tackles. "I'm pretty shocked. It hurt, hurt pretty bad. We have to stay and have each other's backs."
Sophomore Matt Floyd, named the starting quarterback and a team captain just a week ago, threw back-to-back interceptions and was replaced in the third quarter by senior Bobby Eveld, who had two touchdown passes, though far too late.
USF's defense allowed 53 points, the most allowed in a Bulls home game and second overall only to Oregon's 56 in the 2007 Sun Bowl.
"I looked (at the scoreboard) after the game and just stared at it. I wanted to burn it in my memory 'cause I don't ever want to see that again," senior safety Mark Joyce said. "It was terrible. The defense didn't play well at all. It only counts as one loss, so we have the whole season ahead of us, but we have to come ready to work (today)."
Taggart — who had turned Western Kentucky from a program with 20 straight losses into a bowl team — had high expectations from Bulls fans, even after a 3-9 season. Now, after one terrible loss, there's a question of how much progress a new coach can make in one season.
The Bulls were only outgained 201-171 in the first half but trailed 33-7. Three turnovers haunted the Bulls — Shaw fumbled inside the 10-yard line, setting up a 7-yard touchdown drive; Floyd had one interception returned for a touchdown and another set McNeese up for a 16-yard touchdown drive.
That still only covered 21 McNeese points. The defense gave up a 91-yard touchdown drive all by itself and later allowed a 78-yard TD pass.
Shaw, taking over as starting running back, had 192 yards of total offense, but there was little else to show for USF. Floyd was 9-for-20 for 72 yards, his two interceptions the single biggest thing Taggart said he needed his quarterbacks to avoid. Eveld looked poised in relief, throwing for 137 yards, but Taggart wouldn't name a starter, saying he'll evaluate both this week.
"I know exactly where this team is now," Taggart said. "We're nowhere near where we need to be. Our team is mentally fragile right now. We've got to get ourselves right. … We've got to get there, and we will get there. We'll get there with the right guys."
All the optimism built up in nine months since Taggart's hiring is gone, and if the Bulls struggled at home against a I-AA program, there's no telling what will happen next weekend, when USF travels to face Michigan State in a Big Ten stadium with 70,000-plus fans. Nearly anything would be better than Saturday's debut.
"I was concerned about it, preached it to our guys since Day 1," he said. "Things were peaches and cream, but I think it's always a concern when you have a team that hasn't won in a while: How are you going to respond when things get tough? It tests your character, and how good you're going to be as a football team."