With five seconds remaining on the clock and a 26-20 lead over the Cincinnati Bearcats Saturday night, USF coach Willie Taggart was drenched with a cooler of Mountain Berry Blast Powerade.
As he stepped on ice cubes in the Raymond James Stadium grass, Taggart said he thought of Sam Cooke’s 1964 single “A Change is Gonna Come.”
“It’s been a long, long time coming,” Taggart sang after the game. “But I know a change gonna come.”
And when the game clock expired, a new 24-hour clock started ticking for the Bulls (1-4).
“We’re going to enjoy this,” he said. “We’re going to party like rock stars for 24 hours and get back to work.”
The 26-20 final score against Cincinnati (3-2) marked USF’s first win since Nov. 3 of last season and ended a seven-game losing streak.
“It feels like we won the Super Bowl,” senior linebacker DeDe Lattimore said in reference to USF’s locker room celebration.
It was the first win for USF under Taggart and its first win in the American Athletic Conference.
After last week’s loss to Miami, players and coaches spoke of their ultimate goal, an AAC championship, still being within reach. Weeks of preaching positivity from Taggart paid off, according to junior receiver Andre Davis.
“I feel like it’s a new season,” he said. “I’m looking at it as, ‘We’re 1-0 today. 1-0 in conference, and our goal is still intact. We can still go to a BCS bowl game.’”
Davis said the Bulls carried the attitude of ‘we’re going to win this game’ all week in practice, something Taggart confirmed.
“We had a great week of practice,” he said. “You couldn’t tell it was an 0-4 team.”
Taggart said the team was inspired during practice, particularly by senior defensive end, Ryne Giddins, who recently lost his mother to cancer. Her funeral was Friday.
“What we go through on the field is nothing compared to what he has,” Taggart said. “I asked our guys, ‘What are we worried about?’ ”
During the first half, worries may have struck after losing sophomore starting quarterback Steven Bench to a knee injury and senior running back Marcus Shaw to a hamstring injury, but USF held on to a 23-6 halftime lead, due in large part to senior quarterback Bobby Eveld’s decision making, Taggart said.
While the severity of both injuries were unclear, it was the first game this season in which USF quarterbacks combined to complete more than 50 percent of their passes.
Eveld said he felt more comfortable than previous games this year.
“They always tell you you’re one snap away (from playing),” Eveld said. “Couldn’t have been more true tonight. Being a senior, it doesn’t matter who’s in there (at quarterback). All you want is the Ws.”
Taggart said if a player has a scholarship and they’re thrown into the mix after an injury, as Eveld and junior running back Michael Pierre were, they’re expected to step up and make a play.
“Bobby could’ve easily been one of those guys to call it quits after not playing anymore,” Taggart said. “But he brought a great attitude to practice and led our football team. More importantly, he made some great decisions (in the game).”
After four losses due to offensive turnovers, allowing defensive touchdowns and being out-executed by Miami last week, it all came together against Cincinnati.
“We showed bursts on offense and defense that we’re perfectly capable of doing it,” Eveld said. “It’s just (a matter of) consistency.”
It took a lot of convincing, Taggart said, and constant reminders that the Bulls are capable of winning.
“I was tired of hearing people say we don’t know how to win,” he said. “I told them, ‘You guys know how to win. You’ve been winners. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t know how to win. You guys will start winning when you get tired of losing.’ And our guys were sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
USF fans appeared to have grown sick and tired as well.
The official attendance against Cincinnati was around 15,000, the lowest of the season.
Taggart said he understands the fans’ frustration and his team is working toward earning back the fan base. He just asks that when the team gets it going, everybody come back. He referenced the “Coach T’s Bus” promotion that was launched before the season.
“Everybody was so down and out around here,” he said. “The bus had its hazard lights on. Now the bus is moving a little bit.”
USF heads to UConn (0-4) next Saturday at 12 p.m.