Commentary: For once, USF finds itself on the positive end of lopsided game

Sophomore running back D'Ernest Johnson (left) celebrates the first of his two touchdowns on Saturday night against Florida A&M. It was USF's first victory by more than eight points since the 2012 season opener against Chattanooga. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

So that’s what it feels like to win a football game with ease.

After toiling in a sea of mediocrity for the last three years, USF stretched the scoreboard Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium, handing Division I-AA speed bump Florida A&M a 51-3 defeat.

Yes, the home side of the scoreboard really can go that high.

All kidding aside, it was a feel-good victory for a USF team that desperately needed one.

The Bulls hadn’t defeated any opponent by more than eight points since beating Chattanooga in 2012 — the opening game of Skip Holtz’s final season.

For months, the team was forced to deflect countless questions regarding the temperature of coach Willie Taggart’s seat or whether they feel he’s the right man for the job.

Heck, there were even some doubts about whether or not the Bulls could put some distance between themselves and one of the worst teams in all of college football.

At least for one night, all the negativity was quelled.

“It was great to go out and see our guys execute,” Taggart said. “That’s something we talked about a lot is going out and playing the kind of ball game that we know we can play. And it was good to see that.”

How USF made it happen was that much more impressive.

Defensive coordinator Tom Allen’s new 4-2-5 scheme lived up to its offseason hype. The self-dubbed “Bull Sharks” allowed just 182 yards of total offense and held FAMU without a first down on its first nine possessions.

There was sophomore defensive tackle Bruce Hector, a Robinson High product, coming through with two big sacks of Rattlers quarterback Carson Royal. There was sophomore middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez’s team-high 10 tackles. There was true freshman Ronnie Hoggins and junior Jalen Spencer coming up with a pair of key interceptions.

The offense showed signs of life, too, racking up 556 total yards in the debut of Taggart’s up-tempo, spread-style attack.

New starting quarterback Quinton Flowers shook off an early interception and accounted for three of USF’s seven touchdowns on the night (two passing, one rushing). But he didn’t make it look easy.

Flowers’ first TD pass in the second quarter was perhaps one of the more unbelievable plays in recent USF history.

The sophomore out of Miami Jackson High shook off a sack, rolled to his right to elude a pack of defenders and heaved a 22-yard prayer toward the back of the end zone where a wide-open D’Ernest Johnson was waiting.

Redshirt freshman tight end Elkanah “Kano” Dillon emerged as a potential blossoming star, setting a program record for most receiving yards in a game by a tight end with 126, and adding a 62-yard touchdown reception from Steven Bench.

Marlon Mack rushed for 144 yards. Johnson finished with two scores.

For once, everything clicked. The crowd of 21,928 had something more to cheer about than free T-shirts being tossed into the stands.

“We’re ready to win,” said Flowers, who finished 12 of 16 passing for 141 yards. “We’re tired of losing. That’s not South Florida. We know that’s not South Florida. Coach has stressed every day, ‘Let’s get us back to where we were.’”

Still, I wouldn’t put a down payment on that pair of Fiesta Bowl tickets just yet.

While it was nice to see the Bulls put up their most points in a game since they beat UTEP 59-24 in 2011, they did so against a cupcake team better known for its marching band than anything else.

Plus, there were simply too many mistakes.

It took four touchdowns before USF actually scored one that counted because of senseless penalties. Arguably the most dumbfounding of them all was when a first-quarter score by Mack was negated because he showboated his way into the end zone, forcing the Bulls to settle for a 22-yard field goal.

In the first quarter, facing fourth-and-three from the FAMU 8 in a scoreless game, USF opted to run Darius Tice up the middle instead of kicking a field goal for an early advantage.

USF also coughed up the ball four times, including a couple of botched snaps by first-year center Brynjar Gudmundsson. Luckily, none of them amounted to turnovers.

“If we’re going to be a winning football team, we’ve got to play like a winning football team,” Taggart said. “We’ve got to be disciplined like a winning football team. … But that’s something we can correct.”

The Bulls head to Tallahassee on Saturday for an 11:30 a.m. showdown with No. 10 Florida State as 28-point underdogs. If there is any chance to keep it close, those corrections must be made this week.

For now, though, they can enjoy being on the right side of a lopsided result.

“They always say you make your most improvement from Game 1 to Game 2,” Taggart said. “We’ve got a hell of a Game 2 coming up.

“We’ll see how much this football team has improved."