USF football prepares for its toughest test in years

When asked what concerns him most about No. 11 Florida State, USF coach Willie Taggart said, "everything." ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Willie Taggart knows his football team will face arguably its greatest test in years when it heads 275 miles to Tallahassee on Saturday for a quarrel with No. 11 Florida State.

With the Seminoles’ roster full of future NFL draft picks like quarterback Everett Golson and tailback Dalvin Cook, USF’s third-year coach didn’t mind being forthright Tuesday when asked what concerns him most about them.

“Everything,” he quipped. "Everything about 'em."

It’s easy to understand why Taggart has his qualms. USF hasn’t beaten an opponent ranked 11th or higher in the AP top 25 since it downed No. 5 West Virginia two coaches ago in 2007 during the Bulls’ stunning climb to No. 2 itself later that season.

There’s also the challenge of preparing for FSU’s new dynamic duo.

In his debut in last Saturday’s opener against Texas State, Golson, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns in the ‘Noles’ 59-16 victory. Cook, a Miami native, racked up his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game as well, finishing with a game-high 156 yards on 19 carries.

“They have a lot of guys that are going to be playing on Sundays, and it’s gonna take one heck of an effort by our football team,” Taggart said. “We’ve got to be at our best if we want to accomplish this feat that we have in front of us.”

Though a majority of his current roster was beginning middle school when USF toppled the Mountaineers that Friday night eight years ago, Taggart does bring forth prior experience against a championship-winning program.

In his third and final season at Western Kentucky, Taggart’s Hilltoppers trekked down Interstate 65 to Tuscaloosa for a game against top-ranked Alabama.

Though Western Kentucky was blanked 35-0 — before eventually making a second consecutive bowl game later that season — Taggart learned a lot from the experience. He said he sees many similarities between the programs. 

“They had very good and big guys up front,” Taggart said. “They’re long, athletic, fast. I would say they’re probably faster than Alabama was. But they’re big and strong and a really, really good-looking football team.

“I have no doubt that team will be in the (College Football) Playoff again this year.”

The Bulls possess a few weapons of their own they hope will counter FSU’s playmakers.

Redshirt sophomore middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez had a team-high 10 tackles in USF’s 51-3 rout of Florida A&M on Saturday. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Bruce Hector, a Robinson High alumnus, raised some eyebrows as well with two sacks and six tackles. 

Offensively, sophomore dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers threw for 141 yards and accounted for three total touchdowns. Sophomore running back Marlon Mack had the second-best game of his career with 131 yards. Redshirt freshman Elkanah “Kano” Dillon set a program-record for most receiving yards in a game by a tight end with 126. He also caught a 62-yard touchdown pass from Steven Bench.

Taggart said he saw some of the swagger USF used to have in that performance against FAMU.

“I saw some of that flashback in our football team on Saturday. That was great to see,” he said. “One thing we talked about at the beginning of training camp is our defense getting back to USF’s defense, where people were intimidated by it. You just go out, flying around and making plays, and you saw a lot of that on Saturday. And for us offensively, to score more points, and you saw more of that on Saturday. I saw some flashes of what things used to look like around here. 

“We know they’re there, we’ve just got to continue to try to get better,” he said.

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher also lavished praise for USF during his weekly press conference Tuesday. He said his team’s biggest key is going to be slowing down Flowers, who is making just his third start.

“When they run it, you’ve got to make them feel it,” Fisher said. “You’ve got to hit him, and you’ve got to make him understand.”

Taggart has high hopes for his team on Saturday, though. Whether it’s with some extra training — or, possibly, a bit of celestial intercession — earning an unprecedented victory seems to be at the foreground of his expectations.

“I just hope Golson has an off day, I hope Cook doesn’t feel like playing and I hope the O-line is just a little sleepy,” Taggart joked. “They’re very talented. We’ve got to play our A-game. But I like our chances — I like our guys. I like the way our guys are playing. 

“I think our guys will be fired up about this competition and this challenge, and I think they’ll go out and put on a good show.”