USF was playing like a team inspired.
Behind workhorse running backs Marlon Mack and Darius Tice, the offense completed a 95-yard touchdown drive on its first possession of the game. The defense swarmed to the ball, knocking Memphis’ potent offense flat on its rear end.
The Bulls built a 10-0 lead against the undefeated Tigers early in the second quarter. The home sideline was rocking — an array of towels waved above heads in celebration, while players jumped and danced in unison with music booming from the loudspeakers above.
There was hope inside Raymond James Stadium on Friday night. But, maybe most importantly, there was life. That much needed, hang-your-hat-on victory was teasingly within sight.
But then, in what has become the calling card of Willie Taggart’s two-plus-year tenure, the bus soon blew a tire, rammed through the guardrail and went tumbling down into the abyss — again.
Final score: Memphis 24, USF 17.
“I put that one on me,” said a somber Taggart, whose team allowed Memphis to put up 24 unanswered points before a touchdown pass from Quinton Flowers to tight end Elkanah Dillon late in the fourth quarter.
“I could’ve done some things better for them to help them in that game, but that’s hindsight.”
Mistakes came in threes for the Bulls, who dropped to 1-3, 0-1 in the AAC.
It commenced with a roughing penalty by senior tight end Marlon Pope that killed an otherwise positive drive. It evolved into a failure by Taggart to remain aggressive with his offense, and instead opting to play it safe with conservative, predictable plays. It was converting just one third down on 12 attempts the rest of the game after Darius Tice’s 1-yard touchdown run on third and goal in the first quarter.
Much like it has done the last few years, USF played out the stretch like a losing team. The result on the scoreboard cemented that.
In its first two possessions — both scoring drives — the Bulls racked up 162 total yards. But on their next eight possessions before the half, Taggart’s inability to open up the playbook coupled with adjustments by Memphis’ defense, resulted in seven punts and no points.
“We switched up a few coverage deals and then played better,” said fourth-year Memphis coach Justin Fuente, who resurrected a program that once lost 35 of 39 games from 2009-12.
As the game wore on, vocal displeasure from the actual crowd of 14,305, according to the Tampa Sports Authority — USF’s worst since a rain-soaked win over UConn last September — grew more boisterous.
In one instance, tied at 10 late in the third quarter, USF faced a fourth-and-one situation with the ball near midfield. Despite having a mobile quarterback and three more than capable running backs, Taggart elected to punt against the nation’s 103rd-ranked defense, which allowed 752 yards to Cincinnati the week before.
A hail of boos rained down from the stands to the field below. Thirteen plays and 92 yards later, Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch muscled his way into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown run.
Taggart hung his head in dismay on the sideline. Memphis (5-0, 2-0) never trailed again.
“Our defense was playing really well,” Taggart said of the decision to punt. “So, we were going to kick it back down there and play field position and hopefully, get off the field.
“There was no second-guessing and we didn’t think about going for it there.”
Two weeks ago, after the Bulls were trounced at Maryland, Taggart stepped to the podium and told reporters, “Our guys still don’t know how to win yet.”
Maybe it’s not just the players. Maybe it’s the head coach, too.
A winning coach takes chances and keeps his foot on the gas pedal even with a comfortable advantage. A winning coach shows complete trust in his starting quarterback, allowing him to throw it around. A winning coach makes sure after two weeks of preparation that his team doesn’t falter in the second half.
“We’re going to continue to get better and as we continue to get better, those wins will come,” Taggart said. “We’re going to win some football games.”
USF has five days to get ready for surprisingly-good Syracuse (3-1) that is coming off a bye week and close loss at home to No. 7 LSU. The Bulls haven’t beaten a Power-Five team in more than four years.
With patience — and time — wearing thin, this might be the deciding game for Taggart’s future.
Those wins must come now.
“We’ve got to come through with a win,” Mack said. “We’re sick and tired of being close, and tired of people saying we’re close. We’re tired of saying we’re close and we want to come through with a ‘W.’”
By the numbers
24 – Unanswered points scored by Memphis after USF opened with a 10-0 lead in the first half.
2 – Third downs converted by USF in 13 tries. The Bulls rank 124th nationally in third-down efficiency.
7 – Consecutive punts by the Bulls after scoring on their first two drives.