TAMPA — Willie Taggart's first game at the University of South Florida had a dream-like beginning.
And a nightmarish finish.
The Bulls, after scoring with an electrifying 80-yard run on their first play from scrimmage, were steam-rolled and shell-shocked on Saturday night, surrendering 40 consecutive points and getting blasted in embarrassing fashion by Football Championship Subdivision opponent McNeese State 53-21 at Raymond James Stadium.
Some history-making tidbits that USF never could have imagined: It was the most points scored by an FCS team against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. It was the most points allowed at home by USF (previous: Rutgers won 49-16 in 2008). But it fell just short of the worst margin of loss at home (33 points).
Small consolation for Taggart, the former Western Kentucky University coach who was hired to turn around USF's program following a 3-9 finish in 2012.
USF, which had been 16-0 in home openers, paid McNeese State a $400,000 guarantee, the typical fare for attracting an FCS opponent into what is usually a guaranteed victory.
Not this time.
The Cowboys blitzed USF with a 31-point second quarter, taking the lead on a 91-yard touchdown drive, then padding the margin to 16-7 on a 7-yard score following Marcus Shaw's crushing fumble.
It went from bad to worse.
Trailing 26-7, USF tried to salvage a score before halftime. But USF redshirt sophomore Matt Floyd floated a sideline pass that was intercepted by Guy Morgan and returned for a 76-yard touchdown. Taggart stuck with Floyd to open the third quarter, but the quarterback's first pass was intercepted by Ryan Bronson.
Five plays later, Dylan Long scored standing up from the 1-yard line, putting McNeese State up 40-7.
And at that point, Floyd's evening was done.
Taggart selected Floyd as USF's starter after a tight training-camp competition with senior Bobby Eveld and sophomore Steven Bench, a transfer from Penn State. He cited Floyd's ability to make plays while expressing confidence in him avoiding mistakes.
Floyd's interceptions, though, let the game slip away. He was 9-of-20 for 72 yards and is still looking for his first career touchdown pass (against seven interceptions).
Eveld fared much better, making the margin more respectable with touchdown passes to Stephen Bravo-Brown (59 yards) and Andre Davis (7). Eveld finished 10-of-20 for 137 yards and didn't commit a turnover.
Taggart will now try to right the ship heading into next Saturday's game at Big Ten opponent Michigan State. The defense must rebound, and Taggart will need to decide on a direction at quarterback, although most would expect him to keep with the hotter hand in Eveld.
Before the game, Taggart expressed concern over facing McNeese State.
“That's a winning program,'' Taggart said. “They know how to win. That's something we have to get back to, learning how to win, understanding what it takes.
“By no means is it going to be an easy game for us.''
But it started better than Taggart could have imagined.
McNeese State stalled on the opening possession, then punted into the end zone. On USF's first play from scrimmage, Shaw broke through the line, soared past the secondary and roared to an 80-yard touchdown run. Shaw had the best game of his career, rushing 12 times for 145 yards and catching five passes for 47 yards.
After the promising start, though, it began to go bad for the Bulls.
On USF's second possession, from the Bulls' 30-yard line, long-snapper David Burdetsky sailed one over the head of punter Mattias Ciabatti, who gave chase and kicked it through the end zone for a safety.
In the second quarter, USF's defense offered little resistance on McNeese State's go-ahead 91-yard touchdown drive, which featured runs of 26 and 19 yards. Mild concern gave way to shock when Shaw, after a penalty on the kickoff, lost a fumble on USF's 7-yard line.
When Dylan Long scored from the 7 on the ensuing play, McNeese State led 23-7 … and the unexpected rout was on.