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  1. Sports

USF Bulls go to 2-0 with win over Northern Illinois

TAMPA — During its formal pitch for Big 12 inclusion Friday in Dallas, a quintet of USF officials reportedly rolled out a sleek video featuring local treasures such as Tony Dungy and Tino Martinez. Had they waited another couple of days, they could've saved a bundle on production costs and slid in the tape of the Bulls' 48-17 undressing of Northern Illinois on Saturday.

USF's on-field product, which would've been deemed a liability to Power Five consideration 21 months ago, now is an asset. Any lingering question of that was eradicated when the Bulls collected more than 600 yards of offense for only the second time, against the MAC's resident marquee program.

Nearly every inch of game footage, from Quinton Flowers' downfield shots to Emilio Nadelman's chip shots to even the crowd shots (announced: 36,557), seemed final-cut caliber.

Even without two-time 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack (concussion protocol), the offense hummed. The defense allowed the Huskies inside the Bulls 45-yard line only once in the first three quarters. Subtract a 75-yard NIU scoring drive after USF (2-0) had built a 27-0 lead and the Huskies had 147 yards in the first three quarters.

"Even out of all that, there's still room for improvement," coach Willie Taggart said. "We still can be better than what we showed tonight, but I'm really proud of our guys how they went out and executed in all phases of the game."

As the current brand of Bulls football goes, the performance was comprehensive and quintessential. It's also getting customary. USF is averaging 48.7 points in its past six games, prompting Taggart to acknowledge it as the most productive offense he has been around as a coach. The 104 points it has scored is a program record for a season's first two games, eclipsing the 90 in 1998 against Slippery Rock and Valparaiso.

Yet the Bulls insist more air exists between them and their figurative ceiling. "Our standard's high," said Flowers, who gained a career-best 403 total yards and had his first career 300-yard passing effort. "We're trying to get at 900 (yards)."

While struggling with his location, the junior made more than enough payoff pitches, finishing with his first career 300-yard passing effort (21-of-33 for 350 yards) and four touchdowns to four guys.

Late in the first quarter, he found Ryeshene Bronson in single coverage — and in stride — down the left sideline for a career-long 73-yard touchdown pass. Two possessions later, he found Rodney Adams for a 26-yard score against NIU (0-2).

"It's just a great feeling that this offense is finally coming together," Bronson said. "But it's only Game 2."

Flowers then all but sealed things on a seven-play, 79-yard scoring drive in the third that gave the Bulls a 34-7 lead. With no one open on third and 7, he dashed up the gut for 9 yards, then found safety-valve tailback D'Ernest Johnson in the left flat for a 13-yard touchdown a play later.

But this remains an ensemble effort. Linebacker Auggie Sanchez (13 tackles) notched his eighth career double-digit tackling effort, the running game set up the single-coverage chances by amassing 293 yards (including a career-best 120 from senior Darius Tice), and Nadelman connected on field goals of 31 and 34 yards.

"It's fun to see so many guys get involved in that game and contribute to the win," Taggart said.

Even the crowd showed up in record quantity. The 7,252 in the student section was USF's largest since the FSU game in 2012.

"You've got to love it," Taggart said. "I told you we're getting better around here. We're getting better."

Yet the ceiling remains vaulted.

"I found myself getting a little emotionally hijacked quite a bit out there today because I know there are some things we can do better, and we left some plays out there," Taggart said. "There's always room for improvement, and I think our team can play better than what it did tonight."

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