If the South Florida football team was feeling any pressure going into the 2008 season, the players certainly didn’t show it.
Unlike in 2007, when the Bulls struggled in a 28-13 win against Elon, the Bulls came out looking sharp on offense and unbeatable on defense en route to a 56-7 victory over Tennessee-Martin.
The win makes USF 12-for-12 in home openers.
USF coach Jim Leavitt said he was pleased with the way the Bulls played, but knows that the season has just begun.
“I do recognize we’ve got different teams ahead,” Leavitt said. “None of you have to share that with me. I recognize that, and I think our team does, too.”
The Bulls tied a team record with 28 points in the first quarter. USF has scored 28 points in one quarter six times, most recently against Alabama-Birmingham in 2004.
“It’d be nice if all of them would be like that,” junior quarterback Matt Grothe said. “There was a lot of talk before the game about the last two years, so we wanted to come out and score some points.”
The Bulls scored touchdowns on their first four drives, and one key component of that was a player who contributed solely on special teams.
Senior wide receiver Marcus Edwards handled punt returns for USF in the first half. His first four returns went for 90 yards, and at halftime he held the team’s single-game record with 124 yards.
“Marcus plays very focused,” Leavitt said. “I thought his demeanor was good. He did a really good job on his returns. I thought the guys blocking for him did a real good job.”
Edwards also impressed Grothe.
“Marcus did a dang good job today,” junior quarterback Matt Grothe said. “He did what he was supposed to and he made plays when he wasn’t. He’s going to keep that up. I know that.”
Grothe also said that Edwards played a key role in helping USF score 35 first-half points.
“He was huge because it not only helps us, it helps out the defense, too,” he said. “Even if we didn’t score we knew we could back them up. It helps everybody. It helps the offense a lot, too, because it’s easier to score when we only have to go 30, 40 or 50 yards.”
Edwards was quick to credit his teammates for their performance.
“The guys up front did a great job with the blocking schemes,” he said. “I thought Coach Leavitt did a great job teaching the blocking schemes, and they did a great job executing them. The record was just icing on the cake.”
Junior cornerback Theo Wilson also added to the Bulls’ record 226 punt return yards. In the fourth quarter, Wilson picked up a partially blocked punt and ran 67 yards for a touchdown.
“Last year against Elon I thought we struggled on special teams, and that was one area we wanted to work on,” Leavitt said. “I thought we did a really good job in the return game tonight.”
Another group that shined for the Bulls was the running backs. USF had four players rush for at least 40 yards and three backs scored touchdowns.
Senior Ben Williams had 70 yards and a touchdown, and Mike Ford pushed his career rushing touchdown total to 14 with two first-half scores.
One running back, however, scored his first collegiate touchdown.
Junior Moise Plancher came into the game in the third quarter and made an immediate impact.
He has been through a lot at USF, limited by injuries over the past two seasons. Beyond his physical ordeals, his cousin Ereck Plancher, 19, died in March during Central Florida’s spring conditioning drills.
Moise Plancher, however, took his first carry of the season and ran 35 yards for a touchdown.
“It’s been tough here,” he said. “But I’ve always had the support of my teammates telling me to persevere and the coaches telling me never to give up. It’s been a tough road, but it feels good right now. That was my first collegiate touchdown.”
Leavitt said he was happy for Plancher.
“I was really happy for all the running backs, but happy for Mo because he’s gone through so much,” he said.
Plancher waited three seasons to score his first career touchdown. He waited less than a quarter to score his second.
Plancher took a carry 13 yards in the fourth quarter to increase the Bulls’ lead to 49-7.
“This group of running backs is a very close-knit group, probably the closest I’ve ever been around,” he said. “That and the (offensive) line gave us big holes. We all had good runs.”
Several players made highly anticipated USF debuts.
Junior linebacker Kion Wilson started at middle linebacker — the spot vacated by former Bull Ben Moffitt.
“Kion had a rough start there,” USF defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “He settled down and got out there and made some good plays.”
Freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels also made his debut, coming into the game with 3:49 remaining in the third quarter.
Daniels had a rough start, fumbling on his third play. The ball was recovered by Tennessee-Martin’s junior safety D.J. Miller, who took it 64 yards for a touchdown.
Leavitt, however, said Daniels handled the mistake well.
“I thought when he fumbled, he had to make a decision,” Leavitt said. “How was he going to deal with adversity right then? And I thought he did well at that moment. He didn’t come back and put his head down. He just went back out there.”
Daniels — who finished the game 4-for-4 with 86 yards — said his first experience at Raymond James Stadium was initially overwhelming.
“It was exciting,” Daniels said. “I’ve always dreamed of running out of that tunnel; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”