State Colleges

USF hoping to rebound from nightmare 2013 season

Willie Taggart’s debut as the coach at USF last season got off to a great start but ended up turning into a nightmare.

The Bulls opened the 2013 season at home against McNeese State, which plays in the Football Championship Subdivision

Marcus Shaw put the Bulls on the board first with an 80-yard run on USF’s opening play from scrimmage.

That would be one of the few highlights of the night.

McNeese State scored the next 40 points and ended up running out of Tampa with a 53-21 victory.

The Bulls never recovered.

USF started 0-4 before getting its first win against Cincinnati on Oct. 5. The Bulls ended 2-10, the worst record in program history. USF went 3-9, the previous worst record, the season before in Skip Holtz’s final year as coach.

“I think the way we started was a big factor in the way we ended the season,” Taggart said at the American Athletic Conference media day last month. “For us to go out and stub our toe against McNeese State was probably the worst thing that could have happened to a football team trying to get over the stigma of failure. That was hard.

“I think our football team pretty much overlooked McNeese State. We aren’t one of those teams that could overlook anyone. … When we lost that game, we were down and out. Our guys were just used to losing, used to being in that position. It was hard to get them out of it, especially overnight.”

The Bulls won two in a row after losing to Miami 49-21, but those would be the only wins USF got all season.

USF ended its year on a six-game losing streak, being outscored 162-68 in the process.

Although USF lost a lot to end the season, it did play better in the final weeks to give some hope heading into 2014.

The Bulls battled cross-state rival UCF in a classic on Nov. 29, almost spoiling what turned into a dream season for the Knights. USF held a fourth-quarter lead on the host Knights before UCF’s Breshad Perriman caught a 52-yard touchdown from Blake Bortles with less than five minutes left.

With 1:20 remaining, USF’s Mike White was intercepted, and the Knights escaped with a 23-20 victory that gave them at least a share of the AAC title. The Knights ended up beating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl to finish their finest season in school history.

“I suppose somebody up there is watching over us,” UCF coach George O’Leary told reporters afterward.

Now in his second season, Taggart is ready to move on from last year’s rough start.

When fall camp opened, Taggart said his players wouldn’t make the same mistake they did before last year’s opener.

​“This offseason, that’s all we’ve been focusing on is Western Carolina,” he said. “We don’t let our guys talk about anybody else. It’s important how we start our season. We got to go in and lock into Western Carolina and make sure we go out and have the best performance we can have to start the season off with.”

The Bulls have a number of starters returning from last season and a fairly favorable schedule. USF’s first four games are at home, with Western Carolina opening the season Saturday.

Maryland, North Carolina State and Connecticut also visit Raymond James Stadium before the Bulls leave Florida for the first time in 2014 to visit Big Ten power Wisconsin on Sept. 27.

Within the conference, USF plays host to UConn, UCF, East Carolina and Housto, and travels to to Cincinnati — one of the two AAC teams the Bulls beat last year — Tulsa, SMU and Memphis.

With the AAC having either a primary or secondary affiliation with 12 bowl games — including the Miami Beach Bowl at Marlins Park — Taggart hopes the Bulls rebound from last year’s disaster and are able to extend their season with a postseason game.

The Bulls haven’t been to a bowl game since beating Clemson in the Meineke Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2010.

“Getting into a bowl game is a must for us in order to rebuild our program, get it to where we want it to be,” Taggart said. “​It’s a process. Each year brings challenges. You don’t build that program in one season. You got to build it brick by brick. There are no shortcuts. We’re not going to take any shortcuts.”