TAMPA - All along, Willie Taggart said he was sticking to the plan. Saturday night, the plan finally worked.
Of course, it wasn’t easy.
The University of South Florida Bulls played with crisp efficiency, scoring touchdowns on defense and special teams. They unloaded an early season’s worth of frustration, held off a late charge and defeated the Cincinnati Bearcats 26-20 at Raymond James Stadium in the American Athletic Conference opener for both teams.
And Taggart was rewarded with his first victory at USF. Bulls players Quinterrius Eatmon and Lawrence Martin executed the traditional Gatorade shower on a jubilant Taggart.
Actual attendance, according to the Tampa Sports Authority, was 15,919.
It was a tense finish as the Bearcats, trailing by 20 points entering the fourth quarter, scored two touchdowns, including a 16-yard pass to Ralph David Abernathy IV with 2:03 remaining.
An onside kick by by Cincinnati’s Tony Milano was smothered by USF’s Deonte Welch.
The result came with a heavy price for the Bulls (1-4), who lost sophomore quarterback Steven Bench and senior running back Marcus Shaw to game-ending injuries. It wasn’t immediately known whether they would be available for next Saturday’s game at Connecticut.
But against Cincinnati, the Bulls had enough firepower to overcome those losses.
Most of it was provided by USF’s defense, which was led by ball-hawking middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore, who made plays all over the field, and safety Mark Joyce, who had two interceptions.
In the late going, after Cincinnati threatened to make it a one-score game, the USF defensive line, with Ryne Giddins leading the charge, stuffed Bearcats running back Tion Green on fourth-and-1 from the Bulls’ 8-yard line.
That followed a trend USF set in the early going. After Shaw lost a fumble on the game’s second play, Cincinnati (3-2) lined up for a 40-yard field-goal attempt by Tony Milano. USF had a big push on the line and Milano’s kick was blocked by Mike McFarland, then scooped by freshman Nate Godwin, who raced down the left sideline for a 75-yard touchdown.
In the second quarter, Bearcats wide receiver Chris Moore was stopped for a 10-yard loss on a failed screen attempt. USF defensive lineman Julius Forte forced a fumble by Moore, then Lattimore pounced on it and scored from the UC 10-yard line.
The Bulls moved the chains fairly effectively, even without Bench and Shaw. Senior QB Bobby Eveld, who started two games this season, came on in relief and kept the momentum going. But USF faltered in the red zone and settled for four field goals by Marvin Kloss, including a 52-yarder that was the third-longest attempt in school history.
Junior Michael Pierre replaced Shaw, who had three 100-yard rushing efforts in the season’s first four games, and showed pretty well. Pierre had five carries for 34 yards, including a 21-yard scamper, by halftime.
USF, on the wrong end of lopsided scores all season, took a 20-point lead into the fourth quarter. It was an unfamiliar position, but one that Taggart anticipated if the Bulls simply followed the plan.
“The biggest part is being consistent,’’ Taggart said before the game. “The thing we’re trying to teach our guys is we’re trying to set a standard of what we’re going to be, who we’re going to be. That comes with time.
“We’ve got to be consistent as coaches, They’re not going to get it just like that. We’ve got to stay the course. We’re staying positive because of all the negatives that are going to come our way. Being negative doesn’t work. We’re looking for improvement. If you see those things happening, it means we’re headed in the right direction.’’
Last week, USF defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan seemingly foresaw a turnaround performance by the Bulls.
“Everyone thinks that guys are going to go into the tank,’’ Bresnahan said last week. “I’ll tell you what, our guys are rising to the occasion every day because they know how close they are. We just need that first win to get going.”