When coach Willie Taggart first took over the head coaching job at USF in 2013, the Bulls’ on-field product left a lot to be desired on Saturdays as the team stumbled to a 2-10 record.
Just four seasons later, USF wrapped up its regular season and a program-best 10th win on Saturday with a 48-31 victory over UCF (6-6, 4-4) at Raymond James Stadium.
“For those (seniors) to end their season with a 10-2 record is pretty darn big-time around here,” Taggart said. “Considering the fact that their first year here they started out 2-10. They’ve worked really hard, been through a lot of adversity.
“Those guys could have easily transferred and went somewhere else, but they decided to stay here and see it through and now they’re reaping the benefit from it.”
The Knights jumped out to an early 7-0 lead as it took them merely six plays to reach the end zone. USF (10-2, 7-1) responded with a 43-yard touchdown run from junior running back Marlon Mack and then returned a UCF fumble for a touchdown on the Knights’ ensuing drive.
Add in a 56-yard touchdown run from Mack in which he made a half-dozen defenders miss, and the Bulls took a 24-14 into halftime.
Though the Knights did come within seven points of the Bulls when running back Taj McGowan ran in a three-yard touchdown near the end of the third quarter, USF’s defense came away with an interception each from redshirt junior linebacker Auggie Sanchez and senior safety Nate Godwin in the fourth quarter to seal the game.
“I say it to the guys all the time: Before there’s a reality, there’s a mentality,” Sanchez said. “And that’s how it is. If we don’t believe in ourselves, then no one else will. You just see guys gaining confidence, guys saying, ‘That’s enough.’
“We drew a line in the sand and said that’s enough. The defense stepped up huge for us and our offense has just been so potent this year, they’ve always had our backs and it felt good to reciprocate the favor.”
Powered by the rushing attack of junior quarterback Quinton Flowers and Mack, USF finished the day with 351 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns.
Aside from capturing the best record in USF’s 20-year history, the Bulls will also have their eyes on a conference championship if Temple is upset by East Carolina tonight.
“I’m praying ECU wins so we can get that chance to bring a championship here to Tampa,” Flowers said.
If Temple loses to the Pirates tonight, USF will host the AAC Championship game next week at Raymond James Stadium with a shot at the first conference championship in program history.