Syracuse win was nice, but USF football must make it a habit

Coach Willie Taggart (left) reacts after junior receiver Rodney Adams’ fourth-quarter touchdown catch in Saturday’s 45-24 victory over Syracuse. ORACLE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

Thirteen days ago, USF’s season was plummeting faster than Jeb Bush’s poll numbers.

The Bulls had been walloped on the road at Maryland and returned home two weeks later, only to blow a 10-point lead against Memphis for their third consecutive defeat.

The chorus of those calling for coach Willie Taggart’s job was growing brasher with each dropped pass, head-scratching play call and last-minute letdown.

A bowl game was a pipe dream. Any hope of improving on last year’s 4-8 record seemed impractical.

But those were the old Bulls — almost like ancient history, if you watched Saturday’s surprising rout of Syracuse.

The new Bulls were high-flying, unpredictable and downright magical. Heck, they even threw in some trickery just for kicks, and it wound up going for a touchdown.

“We just called more plays,” Taggart said Tuesday. “Some of the plays that we hadn’t called early in the year, we called them in the game, and our guys executed it very well.”

Whether it was the intensifying temperature of Taggart’s seat that motivated his team or the stars above Raymond James Stadium finally aligning, USF couldn’t have asked for a better way to temporarily silence the doubters and hit the reset button on an otherwise testy few weeks.

Now, it must be sustained. 

“It was great to let them know that not only can they win a ballgame, but they can win a ballgame handily if we operate the way we need to,” Taggart said. “But that’s one game. The big hurdle for our team now is to put them back-to-back.”

He’s right. The Bulls have shown they can beat better opponents such as Syracuse and close out games with dominance. But if they don’t build on their newfound success starting with Saturday’s trip to Connecticut, everything will slip back to the way it was. 

There’s just no room for that to happen again. The program — and Taggart — simply cannot afford it.

“Our guys are capable to do it and to win and we always knew they were capable,” Taggart said. “It’s great that they went out and did it, and I think it helps with their mindset. I always thought that was one of our biggest hurdles.

“Now it’s just mentally getting over things and for them to go out and perform the way they did.”

Fans should expect nothing less. 

As wacky as this season has been across the national landscape, the Bulls actually find themselves in a good position this week. A victory would not only give USF its first American Athletic Conference victory, it might also provide some leeway down the road.

After facing UConn on Saturday and hosting SMU on Oct. 24, the Bulls embark on a brutal stretch that includes road trips to Navy (4-1) and steadily improving East Carolina (3-3), then home games against undefeated Temple and defending conference co-champ Cincinnati.

A pair of victories over the Huskies and SMU, which lost to Division I-AA James Madison in Week 4, would be beneficial in case USF has a hiccup or two against the upper echelon of the conference.

And maybe, more importantly, a 4-3 record — two wins away from bowl eligibility — would give fans something to cheer about and those who have stayed home a reason to make the drive down Dale Mabry Highway. 

USF had only a few more than 18,000 people in the stands to “white out” the Orange on Saturday, the worst turnout for a Homecoming game since the team was promoted to Division I-A in 2001. That figure included plenty of orange and blue T-shirts on the visitors side, too.

To be blunt, that’s pathetic. But it’s hard to blame folks for not wanting to shell out money when their team has been losing.

Was the Syracuse win a fluke? For the old Bulls, it might have been. These new guys want to prove otherwise.

“It’s hard to win because it’s football, but it’s even harder to win consistently,” Taggart said. “Everybody’s got to give more if we want to do that. It’s not going to be easy by any of these teams. We have a really good conference, and we all see that now.

“We’ve got to come ready to play every single week.”

USF (2-3) at Connecticut (3-3)

When: Saturday, noon

Where: East Hartford, Conn.

TV/Radio: ESPNU, 820-AM