Sunday, December 10, 2017
Colleges

Beat the Bulls? Teams are finding that hard to do

TAMPA — Dusk, and a debacle, were setting in.

Less than 12 minutes into the 2017 USF season, the Bulls found themselves down 16-0 at San Jose State. They could execute neither a power run nor a punt, and their Heisman-hyped quarterback appeared flummoxed. Before picking up their initial first down, their new coach's name already was trending on Twitter.

"It was pretty funny because everyone started panicking," senior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez recalled. "And I kind of brought us all together and was like, 'Man, you guys have just got to relax. We've been here before.' "

Sure enough, catastrophe evaporated faster than you could say McNeese State. USF, which started 12 seniors that evening, scored touchdowns on four of its next six possessions and rolled 42-22.

For the second time in less than a year, the Bulls had spotted an opponent an early three-score lead and rallied to win by 20 points or more. But for all the confidence Sanchez exuded that night, he seems even more certain of what would have transpired in a similar scenario three or four years earlier.

"It would've been over," he said. "I think once (the opponent) got up, we wouldn't have had the fight in us."

It was only 25 months ago — specifically, after an unsightly 35-17 loss at Maryland — that then-coach Willie Taggart was bemoaning his team because it hadn't learned how to win. But at some point soon thereafter, the Bulls did.

Now, they possess a de facto doctorate.

"They're getting to a point where a team that can't be beat won't be beat," first-year Bulls coach Charlie Strong said. "And that's the mind-set that we're trying to continue to build in them."

USF has won 23 of 27 games, the winningest stretch in the program's 20-plus seasons. Its school-record 10-game winning streak is currently the second longest in Division I-A, behind only reigning national champion Clemson.

The Bulls have gone longer without a loss (since Oct. 21, 2016) than any current I-A team. They have rallied and romped. They've won on Pacific time and in overtime. On weeknights and wet nights.

"It's been a lot of fun, especially from my first years here," said fifth-year senior center Cameron Ruff, a redshirt freshman in 2013 when USF finished 2-10 and suffered a season-opening 53-21 humiliation against I-AA McNeese State.

"Now that we have everything on a roll, everybody keeps talking about the pressure of being good and staying where we're at, but we don't really look at it as pressure.

"We're looking at it as us just playing ball, and that's the way our mentality has to be, because if we start thinking about the pressure and start thinking about messing up, that's gonna become a reality."

Long before Ruff and his peers had to bother dealing with pressure, they had to learn how to deal with practice. Any talk of this mesmerizing evolution starts there, before scheduling, offensive philosophy or even recruiting.

"I think when we first came here, one of the things is, we didn't know how to prepare," said Sanchez, also a redshirt in '13. "We didn't know how to watch film, we didn't come out and practice. The only thing we cared about was the game."

Things changed, Sanchez indicated, when Taggart inserted a competitive element into every practice and offseason workout. Faux speed-limit signs placed inside the Morsani Practice Complex, instructing players to run onto fields, reinforced the culture.

"It just takes a drive every single day," Ruff said.

That spawned a stricter attention to detail, which led to a taste of success, which produced confidence.

Hence the composure at Syracuse in 2016 (when USF spotted the Orange a 17-0 lead before winning 45-20) and at San Jose in August.

"I think if you look at it, we have been playing with (confidence) the whole season," Strong said.

"Everybody is calm still. It's surprising to see everybody that knows what we have to do," Ruff added.

"We come off the field, we see that it's the little things we have to adjust, and we know that the next time we get the ball, we can go down the field and score. It all falls in the fact that we've got to believe in ourselves every single time."

Spoken by a quintessential student-athlete, who already has earned one degree.

Two, if you count how he and his peers have mastered winning.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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