TAMPA — Now it’s 0-3 for the sinking University of South Florida Bulls, enduring the worst start in the program’s 17-season history.
Or maybe: Oh-no-and-3.
The Willie Taggart era reached its latest low point Saturday night in a 28-10 home loss against the previously winless Florida Atlantic Owls at Raymond James Stadium.
Actual attendance, according to the Tampa Sports Authority, was 20,751.
When the season began, USF followers were asked to climb aboard with Taggart. At this point, USF’s diminished fan base might fit on a bus.
With games against Miami and Cincinnati dead ahead — and an Oct. 26 home game against No. 8-ranked Louisville also looming in the distance — everyone has the same question:
Just who are the Bulls going to beat this season?
Answer: No one, if the early level of play doesn’t change.
Once again, the Bulls insisted on self-destruction with a pair of crushing turnovers.
In the first quarter, senior quarterback Bobby Eveld dropped into the pocket and brushed against running back Marcus Shaw with the ball popping loose. Owls defensive end Cory Henry scooped it on the bounce at USF’s 10-yard line and scurried into the end zone, giving FAU a 7-0 advantage.
In the third, it was sophomore quarterback Steven Bench, a transfer from Penn State who replaced Eveld, who lost the handle under heavy pressure. Bench tried bringing the ball down to run, but it glanced off his hip pad, rolled loose and was covered by FAU at the USF 40-yard line.
FAU promptly went on a scoring drive, culminating in a 1-yard run by quarterback Jaquez Johnson, putting the Owls up 21-10 with 1:42 remaining in the third quarter.
Then, when USF was trying for a miracle comeback, Bench’s desperation pass was picked off by D’Joun Smith and returned for another score, extending FAU’s lead to 28-10 with 3:12 remaining. For the fifth time in three games, a turnover by a USF quarterback was instantly turned into a touchdown.
Earlier in the week, Taggart lamented USF’s run of catastrophic turnovers, saying he had never experienced anything like it during his head-coaching career.
“We’re turning the ball over and it’s killing us,’’ Taggart said last week. “If we don’t turn the ball over, we’ve got a good football team. Not only are we turning it over, we’re turning it over for points. It’s the first time since I’ve been a head coach that we’ve had issues like this.
“That’s a killer. It’s a morale killer. One thing we can’t have now on our team is a morale killer.’’
After FAU fired the first shot, USF seemed to get a morale builder when Eveld was lifted in favor of Bench.
On his first drive, Bench positioned the Bulls for a 50-yard field goal by Marvin Kloss.
Then, after USF senior middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore collected an interception at FAU’s 27-yard line, Bench guided the Bulls to a payoff. On third-and-8, Bench found fullback Ryan Eppes across the middle for a 25-yard touchdown, giving USF a 10-7 advantage.
USF began taking control with its most promising drive of the season. Starting from its 24-yard line, the Bulls expertly moved the chains, mostly behind the running of Shaw, who had a 41-yard run on the drive.
Then things bogged down in the red zone.
On third-and-goal from FAU’s 1-yard line, Shaw was stopped for no gain. Bench — and other members of the offense — signaled to the sideline and urged Taggart to go for it.
Taggart did, drawing cheers.
But on fourth-and-goal, Shaw swept left, appeared to have the corner, stopped for just a moment, then was swamped for a 6-yard loss by Owls linebacker Randell Johnson.
It was a momentum-swinging sequence.
FAU regained the lead with a nine-play, 80-yard drive late in the half. On third-and-10, an FAU pass produced only 8 yards, but USF defensive tackle Elkino Watson was flagged for roughing the passer. It gave the Owls new life, which they converted into a 4-yard touchdown run by Johnson, putting FAU up 14-10.
There was plenty of time. There were adjustments to be made.
But whatever plans USF had, they were foiled by mistakes.
Now it’s 0-3.
Make that: Oh-no-and-3.