September 12, 2014

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) South Florida coach Willie Taggart is encouraged by signs of improvement in his team, which faces North Carolina State in its next test.

He's hardly content, though.

The Bulls (1-1) were outplayed for much of a come-from-behind season-opening victory over Football Championship Subdivision opponent Western Carolina two weeks ago, then overcame a slow start offensively to rally and nearly knock off mistake-prone Maryland, which is making the transition from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten.

After going 2-10 a year ago - including a loss to a FCS team - that's progress for a program that's been in decline the past five seasons.

Taggart stresses, however, that there's no place for so-called moral victories in USF's bid to become more competitive in the American Athletic Conference.

''We're not into that. We want to win ball games,'' Taggart said, reflecting on losing 24-17 to Maryland while playing without leading receiver Andre Davis and quarterback Mike White, who was injured on the Bulls' first play from scrimmage.

What was most discouraging about the loss in the Bulls fell despite forcing six turnovers. The defense scored on a first-half fumble return, but the offense was unable to turn any of the other takeaways into points.

Steven Bench, who began his college career at Penn State, filled in for White. And while he didn't play poorly, the Bulls struggled to move the ball consistently.

Taggart said there's a chance White, who has a compression fracture in his left forearm and wrist, can play Saturday against N.C. State.

''If Mike's ready to go, Mike's our quarterback,'' the coach said. ''We're not going to have a bunch of musical chairs going on. Mike hasn't done anything to lose his job. If Mike's not ready to go, Steven will go and be ready for it.''

N.C. State (2-0) opened with victories over Georgia Southern and Old Dominion, but coach Dave Doeren has not been happy with his defense.

The Wolfpack yielded more than 900 yards the past two weeks, and Doeren said his team will need to tackle better as it enters a more challenging stretch of the schedule.

N.C. State also won its first two games a year ago, then dropped three of the next nine to finish 3-9. The Wolfpack went 0-8 in the ACC, their first winless conference record since 1959, and have not won a road game winning at Maryland under former coach Tom O'Brien in October 2012.

''So that's going to be our mantra this week, be able to take our focus on the road and be able to play four quarters of football somewhere else,'' Doeren said.


Things to watch as South Florida tries to rebound from its first loss and N.C. State tries to remain unbeaten:

GET GOING EARLY: The Wolfpack trailed Georgia Southern 17-3 at the half in their opener and fell behind Old Dominion 21-10 early in the second half before coming from behind to win. They haven't led after the opening quarter of a game since the fourth game of last season, a stretch of 10 games.

DEFENSIVE STALWART: USF linebacker Nigel Harris had nine tackles, forced two fumbles and had a sack against Maryland, earning AAC defensive player of the week honors last Saturday.

BIG CHALLENGE: The Bulls would like to their running game going again. After rushing for 275 yards and four touchdowns against Western Carolina is his college debut, freshman Marlon Mack was limited to 73 on 22 carries by Maryland.

BACK IN THE SUNSHINE STATE: N.C. State QB Jacoby Brissett is a Florida transfer who sat out last year. He can throw, and his mobility makes him a good fit for Doeren's offense.

TURNOVERS: USF defense ranks eighth nationally in takeaways with eight in two games.

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