TAMPA, Fla. (AP) USF football seemed as if it was sliding backward in year three under coach Willie Taggart when the Bulls were soundly beaten last September at Maryland.
Many of the players were still coping with the stabbing death of a former teammate less than two weeks earlier, but both Taggart and his boss knew what happened at College Park was unacceptable.
''Willie will be the first to admit that we had arguably one of the worst performances that we've had in his tenure here,'' USF Athletic Director Mark Harlan said. ''But after that game Willie and I spoke. And I just said, `That can't happen.' And he said, `That can't happen.'''
From that point, USF went 7-3, played like one of the best teams in the country outside the Power Five and Taggart went from a coach with an uncertain future to one with a three-year contract extension.
The Bulls enter this season as the favorite in the American Athletic Conference's East Division, with legitimate hopes of playing in a New Year's Six bowl game.
Taggart said his team lacked energy and focus at Maryland. The game was played the same day as a funeral was held for former Bulls defensive lineman Elkino Watson, who was stabbed to death on the night of Sept. 6 during a fight outside a nightclub in nearby Ybor City. Watson was there with several USF players.
''So, of course, that's going to affect them mentally,'' Taggart said. ''They were with him that night and some of them heard his last words. I tried to deal with that the best way we can.''
USF held an on-campus memorial for Watson, but Taggart acknowledged he might not have done enough to help his players move past the loss.
Losing 35-17 Maryland was rock bottom for the Bulls.
''After that Maryland game, we went out to practice and I saw a totally different attitude,'' Taggart said.
The next week the Bulls lost again, but after the 24-17 loss to Memphis, Taggart noticed something he had not seen while losing 20 of his first 27 games at USF.
''That was the first time I saw our guys, like, crying. Where a loss really hurt them,'' Taggart said. ''I went home that night and told my wife, `We're going to be all right. They're starting to care.'''
As important as the change in attitude was a change in offense. In Taggart's first two seasons at USF, the Bulls ran a West Coast scheme and went nowhere, ranking near the bottom of the nation in total offense. The Bulls completed less than 50 percent of their passes as Taggart shuffled quarterbacks.
It was during an off week in 2014 that Taggart, who turns 40 in August, realized he might need to take a different approach. At practice, he had quarterback Quinton Flowers running plays out of the shotgun and playing up-tempo.
''All those things were working for us. ... It was like these guys are screaming to me, Coach, this is what we need to be doing,'' Taggart.
Flowers became the starter last season and the Gulf Coast offense was unleashed.
''It helped me a lot,'' Flowers said. ''In high school we ran the spread offense. Coach T came to talk to me and he was like, `Just play your game.'''
The Bulls piled up a school-record 5,741 yards. Flowers accounted for 34 touchdowns.
USF is still the power running team Taggart wants. With Flowers (991 yards) and tailback Marlon Mack (1,381 yards to lead the American), USF ran for 247 yards per game and 5.4 per carry. The Bulls return 93 percent of their offensive production from last year, and an offseason visit by coaches to Baylor could provide some new wrinkles.
The next step is refining Flowers as a passer. The junior said he is working with new quarterbacks coach Shaun King, the former Tulane star, to better anticipate throws.
''Coach King tells me just have faith. Believe that your guy is going to be there,'' Flowers said on Thursday, two days before the Bulls' spring game.
USF faces a tough nonconference schedule in the fall, with Northern Illinois in Tampa, Syracuse on the road and a huge test at home against Florida State, before what figures to be another competitive AAC season.
It's been nine years since USF reached No. 2 in the AP Poll and set a school record with nine victories in 2007. This could be their best season since.
''They know they haven't arrived,'' Taggart said. ''We still got a lot of work to do.''
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP