TAMPA — The University of South Florida's season opener was delayed by 69 minutes due to nearby lightning strikes on Saturday night.
The Bulls were then rescued by four brilliant flashes of thunder from a true freshman, who tied the program's single-game rushing record.
Marlon Mack, who played last season at Sarasota Booker High, scored on touchdown runs of 62, 60, 3 and 56 yards, lifting the Bulls past the upstart Western Carolina Catamounts 36-31 before an announced crowd of 31,651 at Raymond James Stadium.
Mack finished with 24 carries for 275 yards and four scores, tying the record of Andre Hall, who rushed 29 times for 275 yards at UAB in 2004.
Mack's effort shattered USF's freshman record of 179 yards set by Rafael Williams in the program's inaugural 1997 season.
With 14 seconds remaining, Mack's record-tying night was announced to the crowd. He stood to acknowledge the fans, flashing a Bull-horn sign and beaming a huge smile.
For USF coach Willie Taggart, who team trailed Western Carolina 14-3 after the first quarter, it was a much better start than his debut game last season, when McNeese State stunned the Bulls 53-21, an ominous beginning to what became a 2-10 season.
Western Carolina, another Football Championship Series opponent, was paid $425,000 for what was supposed to be a routine USF victory. But McNeese State remained the cautionary tale and Bulls players spent all week talking about how they would never overlook any foe, regardless of its reputation.
Still, the Bulls hardly looked sharp in the first half. USF's defense seemed lost, surrendering huge chunks of yardage (allowing 454 yards overall). Sophomore quarterback Mike White (overall 9 of 26 for 181 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) was hurrying through his progressions, sailing passes, looking out of sorts.
And injuries made it worse. Offensive guard Thor Jozwiak, who missed all of last season following heart surgery, was on the sideline with his left arm in a sling. Wide receiver Andre Davis missed the second half after suffering a bruised sternum on a 44-yard reception.
It had the potential for a very dark outcome.
Then Mack provided some light.
He wasn't supposed to start. That task had been assigned to sophomore Darius Tice, who tweaked his knee during practice last week, leaving the ball-carrying duties to Mack.
Can you say … Wally Pipp?
Can you say … a star is born?
Mack couldn't say anything, at least to the media, because of Taggart's policy that doesn't permit freshmen to be interviewed.
Mack's performance actually spoke for itself, though, especially for a program that managed just 11 offensive touchdowns last season, the worst mark in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and only four rushing scores. Mack tied that mark all by himself in his first college game.
He was the story – clearly.
But early on, the Catamounts looked up for the task of a stunning upset. The Catamounts, with eight consecutive losing seasons and a 21-game losing streak on the road, utilized a 4-yard run by quarterback Troy Mitchell and a 2-yarder by Darius Ramsey to build a 14-3 lead.
The Bulls remained afloat with field goals of 47 and 33 yards from senior place-kicker Marvin Kloss, last season's Lou Groza Award finalist. Mack's 62-yard run pulled USF to within one point.
The teams exchanged field goals before the half, then USF took its first lead, 23-17, on Mack's 60-yard run with 4:57 remaining in the third quarter.
Mack's 3-yard run in the fourth quarter made it a more comfortable 30-17 advantage, but the Catamounts wouldn't go away, pulling within six points with Mitchell's 6-yard pass to Spearman Robinson on fourth-and-goal with 6:06 remaining.
Before the fans could get too nervous, though, Mack put it away with another TD run, a 56-yarder down the left sideline, when he scooted into the end zone untouched. The Catamounts again made it close, scoring with 14 seconds remaining.
The night was far from perfect.
USF has issues on defense. White must drastically improve.
But Mack brought the thunder. For one night at least, it was the only thing that mattered.