USF is coming off its first conference win of the season in which the unfavorable weather limited the offensive production of both teams, but the Bulls face a far more difficult opponent Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin.
Freshman running back Marlon Mack powered the offense with 103 yards on 31 carries and one touchdown. Mack, who was originally supposed to play in a back-up role this season, has already made an impact on coach Willie Taggart.
“The kid doesn’t worry about a lot,” Taggart said. “He’s a quiet kid that loves to play the game. With most freshmen, especially running backs, a lot of times those guys want to get out and just take off and run, but what I think makes Marlon special is he has the ability to understand and be patient and allow blocks to happen.”
Those blocks that allow Mack to run free had been a key element of the offense’s lack of production against N.C. State. Taggart said there were many factors that went into the offensive line’s improved play Friday night, but most of the turnaround was mental.
“They executed like they’re supposed to; they played with passion, they played a little more physical than what we did before,” Taggart said. “I think cutting down on some things and allowing our guys just to play really helped. Having (senior guard Thor Jozwiak) back also helped with the chemistry of the guys up front. We’ve made improvements, but we need to continue to get better.”
Junior punter Mattias Ciabatti also played an important role in the Bulls’ win. His punts averaged 41.3 yards including one that went 61 yards. His performance earned him the AAC Special Teams Player of the Week.
“Ciabatti was unbelievable,” Taggart said. “To punt the ball like he did in those conditions was big time. He was pretty much putting the ball wherever he wanted to.”
USF (2-2) faces another tough environment Saturday against No. 19 Wisconsin (2-1), which will be difficult regardless of the weather.
“I know for the offensive guys, you have to prepare for the crowd noise,” Taggart said. “For our young guys, it’s their first time on an away trip so hopefully the older guys can bring them along.”
Camp Randall Stadium holds 80,321 people and usually fills the stadium to capacity. Taggart said he knows what to expect from the crowd, having coached Western Kentucky’s team when it played Wisconsin.
“When I was at Western Kentucky, we played against Wisconsin up there,” Taggart said. “It’s one heck of an environment, there’s going to be a lot of red.”
Senior wide receiver Andre Davis may be back Saturday to help the Bulls in their first game against a ranked opponent this season, but the coaching staff is still watching the situation.
“He’s getting better; hopefully we can get him to run around and get back on the football field soon but he’s getting better day by day,” Taggart said.
The return of Davis would be a welcome sight to the USF offense, which will have to match up against a team that has averaged 43 points per game. The Badgers put their offensive prowess on display last week against Bowling Green, scoring 68 points and recording 756 yards, but Taggart isn’t concerned about what teams have done in the past.
“For us, we can’t get caught up with what Wisconsin did the week before or any game before that,” he said. “We have to be sharp in what we do and have a great week of practice.”
Saturday’s game will air on ESPNU at noon.