Before Saturday’s game at Raymond James Stadium, coach Willie Taggart called two freshmen into his office in light of starting running back Darius Tice’s knee injury, which he sustained in practice earlier in the week.
“I brought the young running backs in my office and told them a couple of jokes, tried to get them to relax and told them it’s OK to be nervous,” Taggart said.
Taggart told Marlon Mack and D’Ernest Johnson that Tice would be unable to play, and Mack would be the starter for USF with Johnson as backup.
The Bulls struggled in the first quarter, as USF gave up two touchdowns to Western Carolina and found themselves in a nearly identical situation to last year’s: losing to a Division II school which they paid more than $400,000 to have come play. Sophomore quarterback Mike White had an erratic first half, going 5 for 19 for 79 yards with one interception. USF’s offense looked to be in similar shape as last season.
“We just weren’t executing at all,” Taggart said. “Mike was just off. I don’t know what he was in the first half. Some of the throws he was making, I’ve never seen him throw the ball like that before.”
“I got in my own mind in the first half,” White said. “I was kind of shaky, trying to force things. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a game situation, so I had to get the feel of it.”
The Bulls were able to put six points on the board from sure-footed senior kicker Marvin Kloss. He would finish the game 3-for-3 in field goals, his longest field goal coming from 47 yards out.
But with 5:38 remaining in the first half, USF would reach the end zone for the first time as Mack ran around the right edge and found a gap that led him to a 62-yard touchdown on the first play of the drive.
The touchdown put the Bulls behind by one, but Mack’s day would not be done.
With under a minute to go in the first half, senior wide receiver Andre Davis bruised his sternum laying out to catch a 44-yard pass from White. He would not return to the game, but he has not been ruled out for Saturday.
In the second half, Mack would find the end zone three more times, scoring all of the Bulls’ touchdowns. These touchdowns were from 60, 56 and three yards.
Mack finished the game with the record for most all-purpose yards in USF history with 280.
White couldn’t give enough credit to the freshman running back for saving the Bulls.
“I just helped us move the ball,” White said. “When you have Marlon Mack playing like that, it just makes your job that much easier.”
Mack’s remarkable show masked what was an otherwise subpar performance by the offense. Only two USF receivers caught more than one pass and none were able to score.
“First game, he comes in and ties the rushing record,” senior center Austin Reiter said. “That makes the offense look that much better.”
Even with the offensive line in disarray after injuries to Thor Jozwiak and Quinterrius Eatmon, Mack was able to find gaps and lead the offense.
“He has great vision as a back,” Reiter said. “He makes our job easier because his vision puts him on the right track and, as you can see, he broke a couple free (Saturday night).”
Taggart was hesitant to name Mack the starter for Week 2 against Maryland, but said the freshman made a strong argument for it.
Named to the AAC weekly honor roll and Running Back of the Week by the College Football Performance Awards, Mack currently leads the FBS in rushing yards with 275.
But no matter who is scoring for the Bulls, Taggart noted higher attendance at Saturday’s game, which had 21,946 fans in attendance according to Tampa Bay Sports Authority, and a packed student section.
“That was big-time from the start to the finish,” Taggart said. “… That’s the best student section in the country.”
USF hosts Maryland at Raymond James Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.