Head Coach Willie Taggart has preached playing with consistency the entire season and through their continually bad play, the South Florida Bulls players have showed that they were at least listening to the new head coach.
But after what was considered a great week of practice by both the staff and the players, the team finally put together a well executed game offensively, defensively and on special teams and captured their first victory of the season — a 26-20 win over the Cincinnati Bearcats in the American Athletic Conference opener.
In the four losses, the team struggled with overcoming adversity — with one mistake leading to another and before the team knew it they were facing large deficits they could not overcome.
After running back Marcus Shaw fumbled on the first possession of the game, many of the reported 31,077 fans in attendance at Raymond James Stadium thought that this game was heading down that familiar path and began to brace themselves for another long night of mishaps.
However after the defense forced the Cincinnati offense into a 3-and-out, the Bulls finally got a break they had been looking for all season– Backup tight end Mike McFarland blocked the 40 yard field goal attempt and freshman defensive back Nate Godwin picked up the loose ball and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown to give the Bulls the early 7-0 lead.
The defense then decided it was their turn to get in on the scoring fun — linebacker DeDe Lattimore made it 20-6 when he scooped up the loose ball and ran 10 yards for the score after defensive end Julius Forte dislodged the ball from receiver Brandon Moore midway through the second quarter.
The team also got an inspiring contribution from defensive end Ryne Giddins who had been quiet most of the season. He and Lattimore, in perhaps the biggest play of the season, combined to stop Bearcats running back Tion Green on a key fourth-and-inches play at the Bulls 10-yard line to help secure the victory with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter.
Giddins, a local star from Armwood High in Seffner, was playing with a heavy heart after having to bury his mother, Sabrina Giddins, Friday after she passed away due to complications from uterine cancer.
While the defense was playing with a high level of confidence, the offense was forced to deal with more adversity as starting quarterback Steven Bench and running back Marcus Shaw both were lost to apparent leg injuries in the first half.
While the severity of both injuries is still unknown, playing the back-ups allowed the coaching staff to address two lingering questions:
Who is the better long-term option at quarterback?
While Steven Bench has had his moments after taking over for Bobby Eveld in the Florida Atlantic loss, he has yet to do anything to separate himself as the clear-cut favorite, and while most players rarely lose their starting jobs due to injury, one has to think that Taggart will at least consider re-opening the competition.
Senior Bobby Eveld performed admirably completing 10 of 16 passes for 122 yards and showed more poise than he had in his previous playing opportunities. He still has a lot to work on including finding a way of getting the offense into the endzone; but that is a problem that Bench has been having as well, with both only having two passing touchdowns for the season.
Have they found a capable back-up running back?
While Marcus Shaw has been a workhorse accounting for 81% of running back carries for the team and accumulating 525 yards before Saturdays game, the senior is only 5’9 and 178 lbs and may not have the size needed to carry the load the entire season.
Prior to Saturdays 16 carries for 61 yards performance, back-up senior Mike Pierre had only been used sparingly averaging less than 4 carries a game — but even if Shaw has a clean bill of health for this weekends game against UConn, Pierre’s solid performance should have earned him more playing time .
As the team prepares to face UConn this Saturday in Hartford Connecticut, Coach Taggart understands that beating Cincinnati doesn’t give them anything but one victory, and winning teams know how to celebrate victories for 24 hours and move on.
With that type of focus, victories should be more frequent as the conference season progresses — so having to hear him sing Sam Cooke’s “A change is gonna come” in press conferences, was a once in a lifetime experience — because coaching, not singing, was his calling.