Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. South Florida

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There are statistics. Then there are statistics that matter.

Statistics: 508 yards of total offense. 391 passing yards. Cierre Wood — 21 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. Michael Floyd — 12 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

Statistics that matter: Turnovers — Notre Dame 5, South Florida 0. Red zone scoring — South Florida 3 for 3, Notre Dame 2 for 6. Notre Dame — four personal fouls.

Skip Holtz triumphantly returned to Notre Dame Stadium, where he both coached and played under his Hall of Fame father. But even Lou Holtz never saw a Saturday quite like this one, with Holtz’s Bulls triumphing 23-20 in a 5 hour, 59 minute game that had two weather delays totaling just under three hours.

The severe thunder and lightning that caused Notre Dame’s first ever weather delay might have been something out of the norm. But the 2011 Fighting Irish just learned a lesson as old as the sport. Regardless of how talented you think your football team is, your biggest opponent is yourself.

“We say this all the time,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “You can’t start winning until you stop losing. The things that we did today out there obviously go to the heart of how you lose football games. You lose football games because you turn the ball over. You lose football games because you miss field goals. You lose football games because you have four personal fouls penalties. The list is long.”

As Notre Dame tries to quickly turn the page after a shocking 23-20 loss, here are five things we learned.

Tommy Rees has to be the Irish’s starting quarterback.

When Brian Kelly named Dayne Crist his starting quarterback eleven days ago, there was so little that separated to two quarterbacks that Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar had to look past the statistics.

“The deeper we dug on numbers the cloudier it became,” Kelly said just two weeks ago. “I’ve been doing it a long time and sometimes it’s easy to just look at the numbers and they tell you who the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks are. We’re going to get into subjective things now as we move forward because the numbers are so equal.”

For those that watched the Irish run off four straight wins with Tommy Rees at the helm last year, they know that objectivity is not necessarily a friend of Rees.

Statistically speaking, a production comparison of both quarterbacks would be considered a toss-up. But those looking at NFL prototype Crist and the whispy, dorm-guy Rees would be wise to peer past the statistics and simply look at the way the offense moves when Rees is its pilot. After a half of football, Kelly had seen enough after sitting for over two hours with a 16-0 deficit.

“Production,” Kelly said of his rationale to switch to Rees. “We didn’t feel like we produced the way we should have.”

And while Rees’ numbers — 24 for 34, 296 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions — may objectively have some flaws, there’s no doubt that he’s got to be the quarterback that starts when Notre Dame plays Michigan next Saturday at night in Ann Arbor.

“He was 24 for 34 in a situation where they knew we were going to throw the football,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in that situation. I want him to have the luxury of a running game which we established when Dayne was in there.”

What happens with Crist will be a question the coaching staff didn’t want to have to answer going forward. When Rees lay dazed on the ground after a roughing the passer call, it was freshman Everett Golson running for his helmet, not Crist. (Rees got up and threw a touchdown pass to Michael Floyd, avoiding a bigger controversy.)

While Kelly was mum about what he’ll do for next week, the choice is no longer subjective. Tommy Rees needs to lead the team, even if it does throw the roster into upheaval.

2. The Irish need Theo Riddick and Jonas Gray to bounce back after disastrous debuts.

Both Theo Riddick and Jonas Gray learned about the burden of great expectations. Two of Notre Dame’s most important players spit the bit in their first game as mandatory contributor. Gray’s fumble as the Irish were pushing the ball into the end zone at the end of a surgical first drive flipped the game on its head, as USF safety Jerrell Young ripped the ball out and cornerback Kayvon Webster scooped it up and ran it in for a 96-yard touchdown to shock the home crowd.

Likewise, Riddick’s muffed punt late in the second quarter turned the game for the junior wide receiver, the Irish’s best chance for a game-breaking receiver opposite Michael Floyd. Riddick had a game he needs to forget, muffing two punts (and almost a third), and dropping three balls up the seam that erased potentially big receptions.

Riddick has never been a natural returning punts, but after not returning them last year, Brian Kelly isn’t giving himself any other options in the return game.

“He’s got to do it. I told him to get his butt back out there,” Kelly said after the game. “If we’re going to have the kind of playmakers we need at that position, we don’t have a waiver wire, we can’t trade for anybody. We’ve got to get him to that position.”

The Irish saw their weaknesses put to the test in the opening moments of 2011. How Riddick and Gray respond will go a long way towards determining the season.

3. You may not have noticed, but the Irish defense is as good as advertised.

The Irish might have lost the game 23-20, but the Irish defense only gave up 254 yards to USF, a number that would’ve been their best total in all of 2010.

No USF player rushed for 50 yards. The leading receiver for the Bulls, Sterli Griffin, had eight catches for 75 yards, and USF didn’t have a play go for explosive yardage, with their longest play from scrimmage going for a modest 18 yards. (In comparison, the Irish had nine plays go for 18 yards or more.)

While the Irish weren’t able to force any turnovers from B.J. Daniels, a player who had plenty of them in 2010, they showed a few more exotic packages in their first game of the season, with Bob Diaco rotating linebackers Steve Filer, Prince Shembo, Darius Fleming into hand-on-the-ground pass rusher while using freshman Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch liberally.

Major penalties against team leaders Harrison Smith (two facemasks) Gary Gray (a late hit and a pass interference) and Ethan Johnson (late hit) really hurt the Irish. But make no mistake, the Irish defense played well.

4. Like a chip off the old block, Skip Holtz pulled a rabbit from his hat.

If there was a recipe card spelling out how to beat Notre Dame, Holtz had been hiding it up his sleeve for the entire week. It might be difficult to practice getting turnovers, but Holtz had his defense ready with the perfect gameplan.

“Our whole mindset was bend, but don’t break,” Holtz said. “Our motto was, make them snap it again. Just don’t let them in the end zone, make them snap it again. They haven’t scored yet if they don’t cross that end zone.”

It was a mindset that worked against the Irish, who moved the ball at will between the twenty yard lines, but faltered repeatedly once it got into the red zone.

For Holtz, the victory was one that was well earned. Only in the post game press conference was he willing to address the game’s significance to him, and even then it was begrudgingly.

“I’ve got an incredible amount of memories in this stadium, at this university, as a student driving around campus,” Holtz said. “As soon as the buses got here, I took off and walked over to the grotto and lit a candle, just because that’s how I got through college. A lot of emotional moments for me.”

One more recent memory came in handy on Saturday afternoon. During the Bulls’ preseason training camp in Vero Beach, Florida, a severe storm rolled through town, putting a team scrimmage in an indefinite delay.

“That was the first thing I said to them when I walked into the locker room,” Holtz said. “Hey, we’ve been here before.”

They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Never was that more apparent than Saturday for the Bulls.

5. For the Irish, every Saturday is the season.

One loss won’t keep Notre Dame from achieving its goals. And to the credit of the players made available to the media, every one of them was already mentally turning the page and looking forward to a Michigan game that now takes on added importance. It was 2004 when the Irish were shocked in the season opener by Gary Crowton’s BYU team in Provo, only to come back the next Saturday and knock off a Michigan team ranked in the AP top ten 28-20.

After last season, both Kelly and his players know they can pick themselves up off the mat.

“You know, we’ve been down this road before,” Kelly said. “The disappointing thing is that we thought going into a year where we had some experience, we wouldn’t have to go through this. But it looks like we’re going to have to make sure that our players are understanding what it takes to win football games.”

If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s pretty clear what Notre Dame has to do to win.

You can’t turn the ball over three times inside your opponents five yard line. You can’t have one of your best players lay the football on the ground multiple times. You can’t commit eight penalties, the second most in the Kelly era. You can’t give a game away to a team that you doubled in yardage, like the Irish did 508 to 254.

But that’s what happened on Saturday, for five hours and 59 minutes. In a game that’ll go down as one of the most bizarre in Notre Dame’s history, the Irish lost the football game because of the oldest reasons in the book.