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USF-UCF: Saturday's senior day a celebration of how far Bulls have come

South Florida Bulls defensive back Nate Godwin (36) celebrates the stop against the Temple Owls offense on third down in the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Saturday, November 14, 2015.
South Florida Bulls defensive back Nate Godwin (36) celebrates the stop against the Temple Owls offense on third down in the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Saturday, November 14, 2015.
Published Nov. 25, 2016

TAMPA — His college debut coincided with his 18th birthday. USF safety Nate Godwin presumed he'd unwrap a few gifts and wrap up a few McNeese State ball carriers. A cakewalk in lieu of cake.

Surprise. Godwin spent that humid evening of Aug. 31, 2013, crossing the threshold into adulthood, and wondering exactly what he had stepped into. To this day, the Bulls senior says that 53-21 embarrassment — the first game of the Willie Taggart era — remains his collegiate low point.

"I remember coming in, we had all the hype to turn this thing around and we thought we were gonna put it on McNeese State," Godwin said.

"But Coach T man, one thing I could tip my hat off to him, he's a leader. And through all the tough times, he never told us one time he didn't believe in us."

As time has shown, that belief was reciprocal.

Shortly before noon Saturday, Taggart will recognize 18 seniors, 11 of whom winced their way through that McNeese State debacle and stayed the jagged, winding course. All purchased the vision Taggart peddled, bartering with blind faith.

They persisted through a carousel of coordinators, torrents of online ridicule, sparse home audiences and caustic shouts for their coach's job. They trudged through one season (2013) in which the offense produced more than twice as many turnovers (28) as touchdowns (11), and committed 102 penalties.

"They didn't have to believe in what we were selling," Taggart said. "But they bought into it and they wanted to be a part of it."

Today, they're pinching themselves over the payoff: The resilient nucleus that survived 2-10 as freshmen can go 10-2 as seniors. A victory Saturday against rival UCF would establish a USF single-season record for victories.

"Man, it's great. Honestly, that just shows how much love we've got for each other as a team," senior outside linebacker Nigel Harris said.

"It's like everybody came together and everybody had a mentality. (Middle linebacker) Auggie (Sanchez) says it a lot, you have to have a mentality before reality."

Taggart's pitch was neither slick nor sophisticated. The way Godwin recalls it, the heralded young coach from Western Kentucky — only 36 when hired in December 2012 — indicated he wanted to erect a figurative recruiting wall around the bay area and rebuild USF with local talent.

"I think that it stuck home with me because, growing up, I saw a lot of cats — (Plant's) James Wilder and Phillip Ely, (Berkeley Prep's) Nelson Agholor, the list goes on, four- and five-star (recruits) that didn't want to stay and didn't want to play for USF," Godwin said.

"Him being from (Bradenton) Manatee … it seemed like he had a good sense of recruiting, and he just told me he wanted to build a fence around the bay, he wanted to keep (recruiting) targets here. Once he sold me on that, why go somewhere if it's in your backyard?"

Thing was, tons of yard work lay ahead.

Five guys who will be honored Saturday — including Godwin (Freedom High) and Harris (Hillsborough) — were thrust into that McNeese State debacle. By the time the Bulls notched the first win of the Taggart era, five weeks later at home against Cincinnati, they already had gone through three starting quarterbacks.

And an all-out blitz of potshots.

"It was one day, I think it was Coach T's first year, I was heading over here to practice," left tackle Kofi Amichia said. "And somebody's like, 'Where you going?' I was like, 'I'm going to practice.' He said, 'Y'all practice? The way y'all play, I didn't even figure y'all had a team.' "

Two years into its career, that group was 6-18 with three home victories. At that point, it had gone through two offensive coordinators, two base defenses and five starting quarterbacks.

A month into Year 3, it was 7-21, with speculation over Taggart's job percolating. Some players acknowledged serious thoughts of transferring along the way.

"At one point I did, but as I thought about it, knowing me, I don't quit," right guard Dominique Threatt said. "I said, 'I'm gonna stick through it, I'm gonna stick behind Coach T, I'm just gonna follow through. I'm gonna finish what I started.' "

The resurrection was equal parts expedient and exhilarating. In Game 5 of last season, Taggart handed the keys of his newfangled zone-read-style offense to Quinton Flowers, acquiescing to the sophomore quarterback's moxie and mobility.

USF is 16-4 since, tying Jim Leavitt's 2001-02 teams for the best 20-game stretch in program history. Meantime, the ridiculed have become the revered.

"These young men decided to come here when we first got here, and they chose USF off of faith," Taggart said.

"And for them to go through the struggle, to get us to where we're at now, I only think it would be right for them to go out on top … with 10 wins, the most wins in school history. That'd be pretty cool for those guys. Not only did they say they were gonna do it, they actually got it done."

Piece of cake.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.