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USF tops Cincinnati for first victory

USF defensive back Fidel Montgomery tackles quarterback Brendon Kay on third down in the second quarter. The Bulls allow 350 yards but force four turnovers. Montgomery had a game-high nine tackles. Kay threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns in the American Athletic Conference opener for both teams.
Published Oct. 6, 2013

TAMPA — Seems USF first-year coach Willie Taggart needs yet another stopover at the auto-parts place, this time for shock absorbers.

The old ones were worn to the nub by his constituents' surreal, spontaneous hopping — and hopping and hopping — back aboard his bus Saturday night.

In a victory as excruciating as it was exhilarating, the Bulls (1-4, 1-0) leaned on stout defense, special teams and substitutes — prominent ones — for a 26-20 victory against Cincinnati in the teams' American Athletic Conference debut.

"It feels like we won the Super Bowl," senior linebacker DeDe Lattimore said.

Taggart was moved to even break into music afterward.

"You probably haven't heard this song before: 'It's been a loo-oong tiii-iime coming,' " Taggart serenaded as reporters chuckled, " 'but I knowwwww, change willlll come.' Sure enough it came."

The triumph snapped a seven-game losing streak dating to Nov. 17, 2012, and marked the Bulls' first victory in a conference opener since 2009 (34-20 against Syracuse).

The win was the first in more than 11 months; it last won against UConn, 13-6 on Nov. 3.

And ponder this while posturing for an aisle seat: This morning, the Bulls are tied for first in the American, and find themselves five wins from bowl eligibility.

"It's been a long time," said onetime starting quarterback Bobby Eveld, pressed back into action Saturday. "That locker room's going crazy."

But for this win's magnitude, the wince was just as profound.

Starting quarterback Steven Bench and top rusher Marcus Shaw exited in the first half with right-leg injuries, the respective severities of which weren't immediately known by Taggart.

But on a warm night, before an announced crowd of 31,077 (15,919 actually, per the Tampa Sports Authority) practically every other Bull — or so it seemed — lent a hand in keeping the figurative wheels aligned.

Mojo first surfaced in the form of ex-Blake High star Mike McFarland's outstretched paw, which deflected a Tony Miliano field goal enough for Freedom alumnus Nate Godwin to scoop it up and race for a 75-yard first-quarter TD.

When the special teams weren't magical, they were money. Placekicker Marvin Kloss booted four field goals, including a career-best 52-yarder.

Defensively, senior Julius Forte forced Jefferson High alumnus Chris Moore into a red-zone fumble, which DeDe Lattimore scooped up and returned 10 yards for another TD and 20-6 first-half lead.

Senior safety Mark Joyce, meantime, had the team's first two-interception game in four years. Deonte Welch recovered Cincinnati's onside kick in the last-gasp moments. The oft-maligned defensive line teamed for 6.5 tackles for loss.

But what really sent the student section streaming toward ecstasy instead of exits was a fourth-and-inches stop by the defense at its 10-yard line.

With the Bulls ahead by 13 with 6:45 to go, Lattimore and Armwood alum Ryne Giddins — who buried his mother, Sabrina, on Friday — stuffed Tion Green for a short loss on an apparent off-tackle run. Sabrina Giddins had been battling uterine cancer.

"For him to go through what he's been going through and the energy he had in practice, you couldn't even tell he was going through that," Taggart said. "I was so impressed with him."

Amid the kicks and clutch stops, Eveld and junior Michael Pierre mostly shined in relief of Bench and Shaw, respectively.

Eveld, who relinquished the starting job to Bench prior to the Miami game, completed 10 of 16 passes, three of them to McFarland, for 122 yards, with some timely scrambles intermingled. Pierre had 61 yards on his 16 carries.

Just as significantly, they oversaw an offense that didn't surrender a TD for the first time all season. On the night USF lost just one turnover, a fumble in the first quarter.

"Obviously our defense helped us out a ton, along with our special teams with the blocked field goal return, but it does show we can do it," Eveld said. "It doesn't matter who's in there. Our offense can roll and we can score."

Just how far it can roll on this conference thoroughfare remains to be seen.

For now, just absorb this shock.

"Everybody's been down and out around here and the bus had the hazard lights on," Taggart said. "Now the bus is moving a little bit now. That's great to see."

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3350. Follow him on Twitter at @ TBTimes_Bulls.

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