For roughly three minutes on Saturday against Florida State, USF looked as if it was ready for the spotlight.
On national television and in front of the sixth-largest crowd in program history at Raymond James Stadium, the Bulls jumped out to a 14-7 lead behind an explosive start before eventually falling 55-35.
In the 20-point loss to No. 13 FSU, USF showed how far it still has to grow.
“I look at this game as an opportunity for our football team to get a little respect nationally,” coach Willie Taggart said. “You’re on national TV and you have a chance to go out there and play and earn the respect that you’re trying to get.
“We didn’t take advantage of that. Again, we played sloppy and the result shows.”
But even though fans are likely to be disappointed with just how much growth remains between where the Bulls are and where they’d like to be, that’s no reason to give up on 2016.
Following halftime, that crowd of 52,485 (according to Tampa Sports Authority) had thinned out to a shadow of what it was at kickoff as the heat and Florida State’s lead continued to climb.
The Bulls’ most anticipated game of 2016 may be behind them, but they showed flashes of brilliance that should give fans plenty to look forward to for the remainder of the season.
For instance, in those brief opening drives the Bulls thrived on the big stage. For moments, USF looked like it was more than ready for the challenge.
Beginning with a fearless heave from quarterback Quinton Flowers to receiver Rodney Adams for an 84-yard touchdown on the game’s first play from scrimmage, USF looked to be confidently in control.
However, after each team exchanged touchdowns for the game’s first four drives, it became apparent the Bulls were no match for the Seminoles.
USF’s next six drives ended with five punts and an interception as its offense struggled to get back into rhythm. As the Bulls desperately tried to put points on the board, FSU took control of the game.
As the game slipped out of reach for the Bulls, chants of “U-S-F, U-S-F” were slowly drowned out by war chants from the throng of Seminoles fans.
Led by running back Dalvin Cook (329 all-purpose yards and 2 touchdowns), the Seminoles scored 38-unanswered points to crush USF’s hopes of an upset, showcasing why they were ranked No. 2 earlier this season.
“On film, you see Cook trying to get to the edge a lot and that’s what we tried to take away,” junior linebacker Auggie Sanchez said. “Our adjustments weren’t that good, but that’s got to go back to the coaches and they’ve got to make the right adjustments, we have no choice.
“They kept getting it to the edge, him and number nine (Jacques Patrick). I think they had 500 yards rushing or something like that and you’re not going to win a game when they have 500 yards rushing.”
Whether it was the talent of Florida State, the pressure of the moment, or playing in front of a national audience, USF wilted under the spotlight.
However, that isn’t to say that USF failed Saturday. Defeating FSU would have been nothing short of a program-defining moment.
If winning over No. 21 Temple in 2015 was enough for USF fans to storm the field, knocking off a top-15 in-state foe would have induced mayhem.
At times, USF’s offense was too quick and efficient even for the talent and speed of FSU’s defense, as all five of its touchdowns came on drives of 3:12 or less.
Defensively, the Bulls are leagues from not only where they want to be, but also from where they thought they were entering Saturday.
Allowing 478 yards on the ground is nothing short of embarrassing, no matter who the opponent is.
“I’m very disappointed in our defense,” Taggart said. “When you give up a half of almost a thousand yards of offense, very disappointed in our defense. I thought we would play better, play quicker and a lot better then we did and we didn’t — (I’m) very disappointed. That’s on me, and I have to do a better job coaching our coaches and our players and make sure we do a better.”
USF may not be ready for the national spotlight, but that doesn’t mean the season is lost.
Moving forward, USF still has nearly all of its goals in front of it. The first conference title in program history, a national ranking and a respectable bowl game are all still in reach for the Bulls.
AAC play begins Saturday for USF when the Bulls travel to play at Cincinnati and they know they have to rebound from their loss quickly.
“We have to be positive, it’s only one game,” Sanchez said. “All of our goals are still ahead of us, so if we’re not positive, and we don’t think we can go beat anyone in our conference, then we might as well stop the season right now.”
Much like the Bulls, USF fans need to rebound as well. The loss, while disheartening, shouldn’t be shocking.
The Bulls need more support to one day become a football powerhouse like Florida State.
Joining a Power-5 conference, recruiting better players and drawing more exciting opponents are possible only with crowds like Saturday’s.
USF fans got a glimpse of what the future could hold, but now it’s on them to help make that future a reality.