Nearly 20 years ago to the day, USF football held its first-ever practice. At the time, current Bulls coach Willie Taggart was a 20-year-old sophomore at Western Kentucky University.
He recalled hearing the news from family back home in the Sarasota-Manatee area as they spoke of excitement over the prospect of college football finding a home in Tampa Bay.
“I remember calling back home, hearing all the hype about football in Tampa other than the Bucs,” Taggart said. “It was pretty cool to see that first game, how packed the whole stadium was.
“Again, that’s proof that we can pack that place. We just have to get them back and we will.”
In the time since the Bulls’ inaugural game on Sept. 6, 1997, the program has seen its fair share of ups and downs, from being ranked second in the nation in 2007 to posting a 14-34 between 2011 and 2015.
Since becoming the head coach of USF in December 2012, Taggart has undertaken the task of kick-starting the rebirth of the Bulls.
Saturday, the Bulls will host their first FBS opponent of the season during a year that could mean as much to USF as ever before — from conference re-alignment to awakening a somewhat dormant fan base.
Northern Illinois enters Week 2 fresh off a triple-overtime loss to Wyoming, which ended at 2:30 a.m. after a lengthy lightening delay.
“After coming off a loss like that, the next week you always want to rebound no matter what,” defensive back Devin Abraham said. “But they’re definitely going to come out with some energy, and we’ll be ready for them.”
Taggart said the distractions NIU had to deal with Saturday — weather delays, a late start time and a long road trip — played a big role in their loss.
When the Huskies travel to Raymond James Stadium this weekend, Taggart said the Bulls are preparing to face a versatile offense like the one they watched against Wyoming.
“They’ve always been a team to run it, but last week they threw it,” Taggart said. “I think their quarterback is really smart with the ball. It’s going to be a challenge for us, but it’s a challenge we’re up for.”
NIU senior quarterback Drew Hare, who is coming off a torn Achilles last season, threw for 329 yards on 24-of-39 passing for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Hare also added a rushing touchdown despite losing six yards on 11 carries.
Next to Hare, senior receiver Kenny Golladay was the motor behind NIU’s offense.
The 6-foot-4, 213-pound receiver had 10 receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns. He even led the team in rushing with 82 yards and a score on six carries.
Despite Golladay’s impact on offense, defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie said he’s not changing his game plan to focus on a single player.
“Anybody can catch balls or run balls,” he said. “I think with Deatrick (Nichols) and the rest of the DBs, they have to understand that we are a defense that every week has to get better with our fundamentals and our technique. We can’t get caught up with too much of the schemes.
“What happens is you put pressure on one guy and you forget about the other ten.”
Both Taggart and Woodie compared NIU’s offense to something similar to what Memphis does with its pre-snap adjustments.
“Yes, a lot of (pre-snap movement),” Woodie said. “It’s good that they go against an offense like ours in practice because they do a lot of stuff like that, too: play with your eyes, get you off your keys, then — bam — they hit you.”
When USF (1-0) hosts Northern Illinois (0-1) on Saturday at 7 p.m., the Bulls and Taggart will have an opportunity to take one more step toward recapturing the magic that was born 20 years ago when college football found a home in Tampa.