Despite losing record, Bulls sets sights on conference title

Coach Willie Taggart and the Bulls went 2-6 in conference play last season, but said he believes they can win the AAC this season. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

After losing two games at home and needing a second half comeback to defeat Division II Western Carolina, the Bulls still believe a conference championship is within their reach. 

USF (1-2) will host UConn (1-2) this Friday night at Raymond James Stadium in the first AAC game of the 2014 season. Neither team has had much success so far this season, with both the Bulls’ and Huskies’ only wins coming against lower-tier universities. 

USF has lost any and all momentum it once had this season after Saturday’s 49-17 beat down from N.C. State, but coach Willie Taggart attributes the loss to a lack of focus rather than a talent deficiency.

“I think our issue right now isn’t talent or effort, it’s technical,” Taggart said.

Taggart said the Bulls lost focus partly because they fell into a similar mindset that they had against McNeese State last season.

“I think our guys looked how North Carolina State played against Old Dominion and Georgia Southern and felt like ‘Oh we’ll just show up and beat ‘em,’” Taggart said. “But we’re not that football team, we have to be ready to win every single week.”

He said part of being ready to win is playing with passion. 

“You got to want to come off the ball and want to rattle the fillings in that guy’s mouth,” he said. “It’s all a mentality.”

The Bulls briefly embodied that mentality against Maryland when they forced six turnovers and nearly won the game despite missing starting sophomore quarterback Mike White and other key contributors. 

But with the disaster that was the N.C. State game in the rearview mirror, Taggart and the Bulls are setting their sights on something USF has never accomplished — a conference championship. 

“We’re 1-2 right now so we’ve got a lot to prove, especially with it being our first conference game,” junior safety Jamie Byrd said. “We plan on winning this conference.”

Though winning the conference is the Bulls’ goal for the season, Taggart said some fans need to temper their expectations. 

“It’s also about setting realistic expectations,” Taggart said. “You hear a lot about ‘number two, number two, number two’, but that’s not fair to our guys to compare them to number two. We’re trying to stop that downward spiral right now. We have to stop that spiral and then we set that foundation.”

In order to begin conference play undefeated, USF will need its defense to fix the issues it had against N.C. State. 

“(There were) a lot of miscommunications, they were moving the ball pretty fast,” Byrd said. “I think we came out unprepared.”

But Byrd and the Bulls aren’t worried about the difficulties of bouncing back from surrendering 49 points at home. 

“We will rebound, that’s mandatory,” Byrd said. “We’re still working on being a top-10 defense in the country.”

But if the Bulls’ issue against the Wolfpack was miscommunication, one can wonder how they will fare against a UConn offense they aren’t accustomed to playing against. 

“I think our defense is going to see a totally different offense than what they’ve seen before,” Taggart said. “Before they’ve seen spread, now they’re going to see pro-style from UConn. It’s a little change for our defense.”

But the Huskies aren’t as explosive and successful on offense as the Wolfpack.

UConn has averaged 16.7 points per game, earning them 118th in the nation. They’ve also averaged only 66.7 rushing yards per game, good for 123rd in the nation. 

In comparison, N.C. State has averaged 243.3 rushing yards a game as well as 39.7 points per game. 

Taggart said despite a losing start to the season, he still expects the Bulls to turn it around.

“There’s going to be some hiccups, but I think we’re going to have one heck of a season.”

In order for the Bulls to have ‘one heck of a season,’ success in conference play will be a must, but Taggart and the Bulls say they are already aware of that. 

“That’s what our team set out in January and said they wanted to win this conference,” Taggart said. “We have our first conference game this week and it’s still attainable for us. Sounds like some folks have given up, but it’s three games in the season, we’re not giving up, we’re still excited, we’re still going to work and we’re going to get this thing turned around.”