TAMPA — The University of South Florida Bulls have the nation’s leading rusher.
Maybe it won’t last long. Maybe the Maryland Terrapins, USF’s opponent on Saturday afternoon, will load the box and dare Marlon Mack to have a repeat of his dominant form.
But it bears repeating:
The University of South Florida Bulls have the nation’s leading rusher.
And he’s a true freshman.
Even if USF’s 36-31 season-opening victory against Western Carolina was widely perceived as a narrow escape against downtrodden competition, even if observers still want to see how Mack fares against a defense that is driven to stop him, the Bulls aren’t going to minimize the positive effects Saturday night’s result brought to their rebuilding program.
It goes far beyond Mack, a player last season at Sarasota Booker High, who set American Athletic Conference records by rushing for 275 yards and four touchdowns (62, 60, 3 and 56 yards) against the Catamounts.
“You can’t hide numbers,’’ USF sophomore strong safety Nate Godwin said. “When Marlon went out there and broke those long runs, it helps. You get a playmaker like that, it really gives you a spark.’’
So far, things are tasting very different for the Bulls. Monday night, they enjoyed a “victory meal’’ to celebrate the win, a bit of an upgrade over the normal cafeteria food.
“Rib-eye steaks, baked potato, mac and cheese, rice, a little bit of everything,’’ USF coach Willie Taggart said. “It was really tasty. I even got a to-go box for later on at night. It was good. We all can get used to that.’’
After a nightmarish 2-10 record in Taggart’s first season, the opener featured a buffet line of fun times. A more tangible test obviously occurs when Maryland arrives as first-year members of the Big Ten Conference.
Mack was USF’s main course, but there were other highlights.
Place-kicker Marvin Kloss led the special teams with three field goals, keeping USF afloat until Mack discovered his sea legs.
USF’s defense was far from superb, surrendering 454 yards overall, along with 374 passing yards on 44-for-66 accuracy for the bubble screen-happy Catamounts, but Taggart was pleased with the unit’s response to early adversity.
Coaches and players praised the USF student section, which was loud and alive with activity throughout the game.
“They stayed the whole game, which is a new thing,’’ Kloss said. “Last year, they would pack it up and kind of leave early. It was awesome to sing our fight song with them after the game. As far as the 12th man, I think it has returned.’’
As far as the man, though, it was unquestionably Mack, who wasn’t even supposed to start. But Mack’s role changed when Darius Tice injured a knee in practice last week.
Last season, USF scored just 11 offensive touchdowns, worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision, while ranking 121st nationally in total offense. The Bulls had just four rushing touchdowns all season — a mark Mack matched in the opener.
It might be the Mack show moving forward.
Taggart planned a running back-by-committee approach and said USF has other talented backs who haven’t yet had the opportunity to shine. But he understood the positive vibes generated by a true freshman runner who gained 275 yards in his first game.
That gets anyone’s attention.
“Every struggling program, when they turn it around, they have at least one player who stands out,’’ Taggart said. “Hopefully that’s what Marlon Mack showed us the other night.
“I know one thing, he encouraged a lot of people. Not only did Marlon help our offense, he helped this entire football team. The way he ran the football got everybody excited. I got chill bumps now thinking about those runs. It gave us confidence.’’
And right now, everything tastes better.