TAMPA — Make no mistake, Willie Taggart wants to win.
“Losing (stinks),” said Taggart, the University of South Florida’s first-year coach. “I hate it. It’s the worst feeling ever.”
Taggart wants to build that disdain for losing — and the love of winning — in his players. So far, the Bulls (0-2) haven’t gotten the message, but they have a great shot to capture Taggart’s first USF win tonight when the Florida Atlantic Owls (0-2) visit Raymond James Stadium.
“We need to win,” USF junior offensive tackle Darrell Williams said. “We need to get in the winning category.”
“Bottom line, we need to go out and do it,’’ USF senior defensive tackle Luke Sager said. “We need to show everyone we’re capable of winning.”
It prompts the question:
Do the Bulls know how to win?
Dating to last season, that’s 11 losses in the past 12 games. There have been numerous close calls, but in tight games, it seems like USF looks for the trap door to burst open.
“Coach Taggart said we forgot how to win,’’ Sager said. “When one thing goes wrong, everybody starts going down. That’s one thing we’re trying to correct.’’
The Bulls were shell-shocked by a McNeese State avalanche — 40 unanswered points — during a 53-21 loss in the opener. Last week, it was a respectable-sounding 21-6 loss at Michigan State, but the Bulls gave it away when the Spartans produced a pair of touchdowns from two in-the-pocket, pressure-forced turnovers by quarterback Bobby Eveld.
Fans see big plays by opponents. Taggart sees lack of attention to the little things.
“It comes with being consistent,’’ Taggart said. “If you try something and it doesn’t work, then try something else. ... That’s not good for them. This isn’t going to happen overnight. If it was easy, I wouldn’t be here.
“It’s going to take time. We’ve got to be stern and firm with our beliefs and the way we do things.’’
Taggart was encouraged by one episode on last week’s sideline.
USF’s defense played with great heart, allowing 265 yards and surrendering only one touchdown drive. The offense struggled, gaining only 155 yards with two crushing turnovers. It was the kind of game that can divide a team. Yet, there was senior middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore, encouraging his offensive teammates.
“He was saying, ‘We’re going to get you the ball back … don’t worry about it … we’re still in this,’ ’’ Taggart said. “That was big time. I hadn’t seen that from our guys since we’ve been here. To me, that’s a sign of a football team starting to get it. That’s an understanding of what we mean by believing and having each other’s back.
“I got a text from a player after the (Michigan State) game and he said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry we didn’t get that win for you. We’re going to get that first win for you.’
That’s nice, and it lets me know the guys want to make me happy. But don’t try to win for me. Win for each other, the university, your family. Coach T is going to love you regardless. I know they’re trying hard and want to do the things I’m asking them to do.”
It’s mostly about the little things.
“We’ve got to visualize making those plays, study film, dream about those things, so when they do come, you take advantage of it and it doesn’t catch you by surprise,” Taggart said.
“We had some interceptions right in our hands. … If the ball comes to you, you don’t want to say, ‘Whoa! I can’t believe the ball was right there.’ You say, ‘It’s my ball, I’m making that play.’
“At the end of the day, we’re going to be judged by wins and losses. But part of the process is doing all the things necessary in order to win the game. We’re getting closer.’’
But the Bulls aren’t there yet.
Perhaps tonight will be a turning point. Perhaps the Bulls have acquired such a distaste for losing, things will change.
“It’s up to us,’’ USF junior defensive tackle Todd Chandler said. “No excuses. We know what to do. Now we’ve got to go out and do it.’’