TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Thanks to a freshman running back who wasn't supposed to start, South Florida avoided another season-opening letdown.
Marlon Mack rushed for 275 yards and four touchdowns in his college debut, helping the Bulls come from behind to beat Western Carolina 36-31 on Saturday night.
"We talk about being ready when you get an opportunity," coach Willie Taggart said. "You only have one chance to make a first impression. And Mack made quite an impression."
Filling in for injured starter Darius Tice, Mack scored on runs of 62, 60, 56 and 2 yards while matching the school single-game rushing record for the Bulls (1-0), who rallied from a 14-3 deficit to keep from their season opener to a Football Championship Subdivision team for the second straight year.
"''That was a show," Taggart said. "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."
Troy Mitchell completed 46 of 66 passes for 374 yards and two TDs for Western Carolina (0-1), which has lost 22 consecutive road games. The quarterback scored on a 4-yard run and Darius Ramsey added a 2-yarder for the Catamounts, who led 17-16 before fading in the second half.
Mack's second TD gave USF its first lead, 23-17, late in the third quarter. Mike White set up his third TD with a couple of long pass completions, and the 195-pound running back put the game out of reach with his 56-yard burst after Western Carolina pulled within 30-24 with six minutes remaining.
Mitchell kept it close by throwing fourth-quarter TD passes of 6 yards to Spearman Robinson and 5 yards to Terryon Robinson, who finished with 15 receptions for 121 yards.
After going 2-10 in their first season under coach Willie Taggart, including a 53-21 loss to FCS opponent McNeese State, the Bulls are hoping for a turnaround similar to one Taggart led at Western Kentucky three years ago.
Taggart inherited a program at his alma mater that had dropped 20 consecutive games when he returned to the Hilltoppers in 2010. The team won just two games that season, but followed with a 7-5 record that represented the biggest one-year improvement in Sun Belt Conference history.
USF, which snared the top recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference last winter, feels it's poised for an about-face, too.
While Mack had an impressive debut, the Bulls also are counting heavily on White, who started the last five games of 2013 as a true freshman. The Bulls lost all of those six — finishing the season on a six-game slide — but he clearly was the most effective of four starting quarterbacks Taggart used a year ago.
Western Carolina, which has never beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, will close its season at Alabama on Nov. 22. A year ago, the Catamounts faced three FBS opponents, losing at Auburn, Virginia Tech and Middle Tennessee by a combined score of 152-30.
Their 17-16 halftime advantage was their first lead on a FBS team that deep into a game. The margin would have been bigger if Mitchell hadn't made a poor throw to an open receiver in the end zone before Western settled for Richard Sigmon's 33-yard field goal late in the second quarter.
White completed 9 of 26 passes for 181 yards and one interception. Mack carried 24 times in tying the USF rushing record set by Andre Hall vs. UAB in 2004.
Western Carolina, which played without five players who were suspended for the opener, haven't won a road game since winning at The Citadel in October 2010. They've won four games total over the past three seasons, three of them against Division II Mars Hill.