TAMPA, Fla. - McNeese State opened the season in spectacular fashion.
Cody Stroud threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns to help the Cowboys upset South Florida 53-21 and ruin the Bulls' debut under coach Willie Taggart on Saturday night.
The Cowboys scored three touchdowns within a five-minute span of the second quarter to take control. It was 40-7 early in the third quarter and would have been worse if USF's Marcus Shaw hadn't broken an 80-yard run for a touchdown on the Bulls' first play from scrimmage.
"In the short term this is really exciting for our kids," McNeese State coach Matt Viator said. "It's our first win over a BCS conference team."
Stroud threw TD passes of 22 and 78 yards to Nic Jacobs, Dylan Long scored on runs of 1 and 7 yards and Guy Morgan returned an interception 76 yards for a TD.
McNeese State is beginning its eighth season under Viator. With 13 Southland Conference championships and 14 FCS Subdivision playoff appearances, the Cowboys not only have a strong tradition but have had success before against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.
Viator did keep a coaching perspective on the big win.
"Long term, it's one of 12 (games)," he said. "We've got a game next week."
The 53 points were most ever scored against South Florida at home. McNeese also has victories against three members of the Sun Belt Conference - Louisiana-Monroe (2002), Louisiana-Lafayette (2007) and Middle Tennessee (2012) - over the past 11 years. They're 4-12 in games against FBS schools since 2000.
"I think the no-huddle helped us, it really did," Viator said. "We're not a no-huddle team. We thought about it. We've got a senior quarterback that I thought handled it really well. We thought it could help us because we really didn't have no idea what they were going to run."
Jacobs caught five passes for 122 yards for McNeese. The Cowboys rushed for 180 yards and outgained USF 424 yards to 342 overall.
"Every time we messed up, they capitalized on it," South Florida linebacker DeDe Lattimore said. "They're a great team, but I can tell you one thing: We're going to get it right, and we're going to get everything corrected."
Taggart left Western Kentucky for South Florida last December and faces the task of turning around a once-rising program that fell on hard times in recent years in the Big East, which has been renamed the American Athletic Conference.
Beginning with a loss to a Football Championship Subdivision school was not a good start.
"My thing was when they hit us in the mouth, which they did, how we were going to respond," Taggart said. "And we didn't respond the way that I want our football team to respond. But we're going to get the guys in there that are going to respond the way that we want this football team (to respond). I can guarantee you that."
Bobby Eveld sparked USF's offense when he replaced Matt Floyd at quarterback after USF's starter threw two interceptions. The backup threw a 59-yard TD pass to Stephen Bravo-Brown and later finished a drive prolonged by a roughing-the-passer penalty with a 7-yarder to Andre Davis.
Taggart grew up in the Tampa Bay area and made a name for himself as a player and coach at Western Kentucky. After turning around his alma mater, which had lost 20 consecutive games before he arrived three seasons ago, the 37-year-old coach is embracing the challenge of helping South Florida reach its potential.
The Bulls were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation in 2007, but have been in steady decline ever since. After a 2-0 start a year ago, they dropped nine of 10 down the stretch under Skip Holtz before luring Taggart away from his old job with a five-year, $5.75 million contract.
The Taggart era got off a rousing start when Shaw broke his long run on USF's first play from scrimmage, however the Bulls offense only had sporadic success the rest of the night against a defense led by former Western Kentucky defensive coordinator Lance Guidry, who led the Hilltoppers in last year's Little Caesar's Bowl after Taggart left for his new job.
Floyd completed 9 of 20 passes for 72 yards for USF. The sophomore won the starting job in a close competition with Eveld, another holdover from last year's 3-9 season, and Penn State transfer Steven Bench.
By the middle of the second quarter, the struggling Floyd was drawing boos from the announced crowd of 35,478. The jeers intensified when Morgan picked off a sideline throw and raced up the field to put McNeese up 33-7 before the half, and again early in the third quarter when Ryan Bronson's interception led to Long's second TD.
Eveld was 10 of 20 for 137 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Shaw finished with 147 yards rushing on 12 attempts.