Finishing with the most wins in a single season in program history, USF football’s 2016 senior class will go down as the catalysts of change that coach Willie Taggart hoped for as he recruited his first class of Bulls in 2013.
Going 16-20 in three years at his alma mater Western Kentucky, Taggart admittedly didn’t have much to offer when he took over a USF program that had just finished 3-9 in 2012 with Skip Holtz.
“These young men decided to come here … they chose USF off of faith,” Taggart said. “This is where they wanted to be and they wanted to turn this program around and they said that was what they were going to do.
“For them to go struggle to get us where we are at now, I only think it would be right for them to go out on top.”
With Saturday’s 48-31 win over in-state rival UCF in the “War on I-4,” staying the course finally paid off as the Bulls logged a record 10th win.
Led by a relentless rushing attack headed by quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, USF ran for 351 yards and five touchdowns as it pulled away from UCF early.
Though the Knights pulled within seven points midway through the fourth quarter, interceptions by linebacker Auggie Sanchez and safety Nate Godwin in the fourth quarter sealed the win for USF.
When Godwin first committed to being a Bull, he wasn’t really sure what had convinced him to play for Taggart in the first place.
“I don’t know, maybe it was the look in his eyes,” Godwin said. “I remember sitting in his office and he told me, ‘Let’s bring it home.’ You know, why not do it when it’s right here? Why leave when you can do right in your own city?”
Despite the record-breaking season for USF, the Bulls’ 46-30 loss at Temple was the deciding factor in the Owls playing in the upcoming AAC Championship game over the Bulls.
Missing out on playing for a conference championship certainly stings, but for seniors like Nigel Harris, lifting the “War on I-4” trophy on Saturday helps to put in perspective how far USF has come in four seasons.
“We played McNeese State (in the first game of 2013) and they whooped up on us,” Harris said. “I thought to myself, ‘I really came here for this?’ You don’t expect that coming to a D-I school playing I-AA and them doing that to us it was like, ‘Wow, OK we definitely have some work to do here at this program.’”
That 53-21 loss to an FCS school was only one of several marks on a dismal first year for Taggart and these seniors, as they finished the year with a 2-10 record.
That’s when the Bulls would get to work.
Incremental improvements were made in Taggart’s second year, as USF finished 4-8 in 2014.
Showing some marginal improvement, Taggart’s initial class, now in their junior year, began to make their impact felt on a growing program looking for a spark.
One of those leaders, senior wide receiver Rodney Adams, used his second year at USF to cement his place in Bulls’ lore, as the St. Petersburg native broke the single season touchdown reception record with nine in his junior campaign.
“We had the low times, but we all bought in to the program,” Adams said.
“We all stuck by Coach T, and we stayed the course and everything’s playing out like we wanted it to.”
Adams and the Bulls would finish the year 8-5 and bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
Although the Bulls fell short of their first conference championship this season, the seniors still led USF to the best record of any team in the AAC and the best in the 20-year history of USF football.
For Godwin, much like rest of this class of seniors, getting the program back on track to being a contender still seems implausible.
“When I first got recruited, I wanted to be somebody that came here and set the foundation for this program,” Godwin said.
“(Taggart) didn’t have a lot to sell, but I believed in his plan and I wanted to put on for my city. I wanted to be one of those recruits that didn’t leave and go on to another school when I could have. So, to be able to stay here to go from 2-10 to 10-2, it’s amazing. It’s unbelievable.”