USF unleashed the Mack attack in Saturday’s season-opening 36-31 victory over Western Carolina before a crowd of 31,651 at Raymond James Stadium.
Marlon Mack tied program records with 275 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the way to setting a new USF record with 280 all-purpose yards in the most productive game ever for a USF freshman running back.
“I told our football team before the game, ‘Some people show up under the spotlight and some people run away.’ The spotlight came and he showed up and he showed out. It was good to see,” head coach Willie Taggart said. “We said all training camp the kid is special. We saw that in training camp. We saw that on the field when we recruited him and he didn’t let us down tonight.”
Mack, a true freshman out of Booker High School in Sarasota, had three rushes of 50-plus yards and his 60-yarder gave the Bulls their first lead with 4:57 remaining in the third quarter. The newest American Athletic Conference record-holder for rushing yards in a game gave USF the breathing room it needed with a 56-yard touchdown run that helped the Bulls grab a 36-24 lead with 4:40 remaining.
USF’s 294-yard rushing attack paved the way for the victory after the Bulls’ defense set the tone by creating havoc early in the first quarter.
USF forced 25 turnovers on the way to becoming a top-25 defense in 2013 and the Bulls picked up right where they left off against Western Carolina even after having to wait 1 hour, 9 minutes during a lightning delay. Sophomore linebacker Nigel Harris (Tampa) forced a fumble that was recovered by Todd Chandler (Miami) on the first drive of the game. It marked the second forced fumble by Harris in his promising, young career as a Bull after he tied for seventh on the team with 37 tackles in 2013.
The Bulls forced their second turnover just 3 minutes, 4 seconds into the game when safety Jamie Byrd (Dade City) intercepted a pass at the Western Carolina 47-yard line. Byrd posted a game-high 11 tackles in his USF debut after becoming an NJCAA All-American at Iowa Western Community College in 2013.
USF failed to score on its first two drives and Western Carolina got on the scoreboard on its third driving following an interception by sophomore Mike White at the Catamounts’ 32-yard line. Quarterback Troy Mitchell capped off a 12-play, 58-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run with 5:59 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Bulls responded with a 47-yard field goal from Marvin Kloss (Naples, Fla.) eight plays after senior Chris Dunkley (Pahokee, Fla.) set a new career high with a 41-yard kickoff return that started the Bulls on their own 46. Kloss became USF’s first-ever player up for a major college football award by becoming a Groza Award finalist last season after leading the nation with 11 field goals of 40 yards or more and four of 50-plus yards.
Western Carolina’s offense continued to stay in a groove on its fourth drive of the game that resulted in a 14-3 lead. The Catamounts drove 88 yards down the field and scored on their ninth play when running back Darius Ramsay found the end zone from 2 yards out as time expired in the first quarter.
Another big return from Dunkley put the Bulls in a position to chip away at the deficit midway through the second quarter. Dunkley’s 24-yard punt return set the Bulls up at their 48 and senior tight end Sean Price got the offense into the red zone with a career long 32-yard reception. Kloss connected on a 33-yard field goal to cut Western Carolina’s lead to 14-6 with 8:08 to go before halftime.
USF found the end zone for the first time this season in explosive fashion less than 3 minutes later when Mack made a cut and jetted 62 yards for a touchdown. It marked USF’s longest touchdown run since Marcus Shaw’s 80-yarder against McNeese State in the 2013 season opener and Mack’s big play stands as the 10th longest run in program history.
Mack racked up 99 rushing yards on 10 carries in the first half and he wound up tying the school record of 275 yards originally set by Andre Hall at UAB in 2004. Mack shattered the USF freshman rushing record of 179 yards set by Rafael Williams in 1997 and he now owns the program record in yards per carry (11.5) among players with 20 rushes or more in a game.
“He has great vision as a back,” senior center Austin Reiter said. “He really makes our job a lot easier because when there are creases and whatnot his vision really gets him on the right track. As you can see, he broke a couple free tonight.”
Western Carolina grabbed 17-13 advantage on a 33-yard field goal by Richard Sigmon with 1:03 left in the half, but the Bulls’ offense snuck in one more score before the teams headed into the locker room. Senior Andre Davis extended his school record streak of 31 games with a reception by hauling in a 44-yard pass that got the Bulls to the Catamounts’ 15-yard line. Kloss’ 26-yard field goal cut the deficit to 17-16 with a 24 seconds remaining.
“I’ve been preaching that to our guys all training camp, all offseason, about adversity and how to deal with it. I was really proud of how our guys dealt with it,” Taggart said. “I didn’t see anybody put their heads down on the sideline when it was tough. I didn’t hear anybody arguing with someone else. I heard a lot of guys encouraging each other and it paid off for us.”
Demetrius Hill’s first-career sack stalled Western Carolina’s first drive of the second half and another dazzling play by Mack gave the Bulls their first lead with 4:57 remaining in the third quarter. The former Booker High School star ignited the crowd with a 60-yard touchdown run that gave him 174 rushing yards with plenty of football left in his superb collegiate debut.
Mack was back in the end zone with 12:21 remaining in the fourth quarter when he punched it in from 3 yards out to cap off a nine-play, 87-yard drive that gave the Bulls a 30-17 lead. Mack rushed for 20 yards on the drive while White started to heat up through the air. The sophomore quarterback from Fort Lauderdale found sophomore Rodney Adams for 33 yards to get the Bulls near midfield and connected with senior Deonte Welch for a 35-yard strike that put USF on the Western Carolina 5-yard line.
White went 9-for-26 through the air for 181 yards and posted a career-high rush of 17 yards. Junior Steven Bench replaced White late in the game and went 1-for-1 for 10 yards.
Mack’s 56-yard touchdown run helped give the Bulls a 36-24 lead with 4:40 remaining and his ability to tie Ben Williams for the school record of four touchdowns helped the program hold on. Western Carolina capped off the scoring with a 14-yard touchdown catch by Terryon Robinson with 1:31 to play.
Next up for the Bulls is a test against Maryland on Saturday, Sept. 6 at Raymond James Stadium. The first-ever meeting between the programs is set for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff and the game will be broadcast nationally on the CBS Sports Network.