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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. South Florida

Sep 4, 2011, 12:11 AM EDT

South Florida v Notre Dame Getty Images

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.

  1. dguerrero - Sep 4, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    Five Things I learned this week:

    1. The ND offense needs to have situational practices if they don’t already have them. And if they already have them, they need to do more of them, ESPECIALLY red zone situations. I saw a team yesterday that had literally no problems driving down the field (sans Dayne Crist’s debacle of a second quarter, after he seemed to lose his head and cool because of the huge momentum changer when Jonas Gray got stripped). What I saw yesterday was an inability to punch the ball into the end zone.

    2. Jonas Gray / Theo Riddick / Harrison Smith / Dayne Crist didn’t have their head in this game. Sure, you might say “that’s 4 out of 22 guys on the field!” but Dayne Crist was appointed the leader of this team. We can’t afford to have a guy now that hangs back and only does well when things are going well. We need a grinder, someone that’s going to go in and say “hey guys, we got this.” I saw that once Tommy Rees went out onto the field. Harrison Smith is the leader on the defense. His face mask penalties were INEXCUSABLE. Shame on you captain. Theo Riddick needs to have punt return duties removed, he’s a starter on the offense after all. Jonas Gray is a fumbling machine and it looks he’s never going to pan out into a reliable back up running back, much less a starter.

    3. Cierre Wood is for real. His performance speaks for itself. It seems like only he, Michael Floyd, Tommy Rees and the defense (for a majority of the time) showed up to play yesterday.

    4. The offensive line did its job. No matter who was in there at QB, they had time to throw the ball. Rees only got sacked once, and was forced to throw it away maybe two or three times that I remember. Included in this is the TE spot. We need to get those guys more involved. Eifert and Ragone had flashes of brilliance. NEED TO INVOLVE THE TEs MORE!

    5.This team is close to being really good. If you consider all the red zone mistakes, we’re talking at least a 17 point turn around. With South Florida being shut down virtually all day (except for the one drive in the 3rd quarter), yesterday’s score at halftime could’ve easily been 17-0. Tack on the 20 points we scored in the 2nd half? Well, you can do the math.

    Fellow domers and ND fans, calm down. Take it one game at a time. Michigan is next, and with better execution, it will be a hard fought game, but I expect the team to come out prevailing and with momentum back in our favor to take on the rest of the season.

    • nudeman - Sep 4, 2011 at 12:55 PM

      The team is close to being really good? Seriously????

      What game were you watching? They were lousy in every phase except for Tommy Rees piling up a few yards (but also making a crucial red zone turnover). I don’t know what went on in the way of coaching in the days leading up to this mess, but they were NOT ready to play.

  2. mmcss690 - Sep 4, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    I’m surprised by the many comments supporting the continued play of Crist. Even more baffling is the stark belief that Crist is a better quarterback. One commented that Rees was awful in the USC game last year…but they still put one in the W column! I bit my tongue reading the comments during pre-season but after yesterday I must express my support for Rees. He took over for an injured Crist last season and nearly won the game…as a freshman. Then followed that up with 5 wins, including USC and a huge win over Miami! If you did not feel the energy difference with Rees in the game you weren’t paying attention. That kid put our points on the board. He would not have crumbled following the Gray fumble. Rees is solid. Crist may have all the attributes of a good QB but he is lacking natural flow, he is too mechanical. It is this fans opinion that Rees has a gift of being able to create one attribute that Crist cannot and that is synergy. Rees has it and Crist does not. Maybe he doesn’t fit the pre-established mold but you can keep your “he fits the suit” QB, I’ll take Rees and the W. Just imagine if he had 4 quarters to work with!

    • nudeman - Sep 4, 2011 at 2:59 PM

      I am one of those who supports Crist. I don’t know how you can stand up and say the glowing things Kelly said about him 10 days ago, then yank him after one half. And I saw very few Rees supporters in the weeks leading up to this debacle.

      Makes no sense. I don’t get it, and can only conclude there’s something going on here in the way of the relationship between Crist and Kelly.

      • johnnd1985 - Sep 4, 2011 at 4:57 PM

        I agree. The only receiver capable of consistently catching a ball is Floyd. Everyone else is inconsistent at best. Eifert and Jones did a little better in the 2nd half but Riddock should have been yanked at half. As far as coming out of half with energy, two hours should be plenty of time to get a team up and to fix misstakes. Frankly, I hang this loss on the Head Coach and the special teams coach.

      • terryb101 - Sep 5, 2011 at 8:22 AM

        crist is a good pratice qb, under game conditions he appears to fold quicker than a 7-2 off suit would in poker

  3. mmcss690 - Sep 4, 2011 at 1:03 PM

    Nudeman, is that a conspiracy theory, Crist and Kelly have bad chemistry? Or are you now writing stories for entertainment tonight? Was that your headline I read on that magazine going through the checkout line at the grocery store?

  4. mmcss690 - Sep 4, 2011 at 1:20 PM

    USF scored 1 offensive touchdown and kicked 3 field goals. Appears that D did a damned good job!

    • tedlinko - Sep 6, 2011 at 2:26 AM

      And one of those field goals was off the Riddick muff, where they got the ball in field goal range. No question, the defense is solid. The offense is what let them down.

      The good news is, the offense is fixable. It isn’t a lack of talent. The skills are there. They just didn’t execute. And honestly, while it isn’t all on Crist (he didn’t fumble on the 1 yard line or muff a punt) the offense just doesn’t run as smoothly or consistently when he’s in there. The players will never say this, but I think they just have more confidence in Rees. You can see it in the way they play when he’s in there.

  5. smurphdoggy29 - Sep 4, 2011 at 6:01 PM

    Keith, I LOVE College Football, Notre Dame, and all the folks who can now “air it out” in forums like this !!

    Let the Kelly sideline demeanor go people, happens on every team, all the time. Remember your own observations about all the cameras, well there are also numerous people “in the truck” producing the game and they are going to hit that button to show Kelly quick as you can say go. Can they do it to the opposing Coach too, yes, but it won’t “sell” as well. Funny how at the end of the season so many of those clips surface, but by then you’ve moved on.

    Rees is “the man”, sure, why not. Finished second, could have started, but didn’t. Came in and moved the Offensive Unit, yes, there were still a few glitches, but move it he did. Crist just happened to be on the field when his “playmakers”, sans Floyd, had the yips. Eifert dropped a pass, and every person I was within earshot of said in unison, “Rudolf makes that catch”, so dial it back a notch with the comparison because Crist can do it, he just needs those who are entrusted with the other half of the bargain TO do it.

    What about the O-line ? Not hearing a lot there folks ? What up ? They did just fine overall, probably why we aren’t hearing chirping, same with Cierre, he did pretty decent too.

    The Defense (I agree with a few who observed that “haters” get on these sites and just dig) is as advertised. Never were they going to be billed as a D that was going to force turnovers, just one that would be stout, and that they were. Loved the one observation that it is the same old on defense, had to laugh (out loud even), because anyone who knows competitive team sports that require a team to advance something into a scoring area realize that the law of averages wins out and the eventuality is said team will post ensuing score. As USF did late, just mathematics working its mojo.

    The Defense is fine. Some said our Marquee guys heads weren’t into it ? Hmmm interesting, a few better angles, some better outcomes in key situations, and we would have Sports Center highlighting those poor plays as keys to the outcome.

    Special Teams, well we knew punting would be tricky at best, and we a were right ! Return teams, kick offs not too shabby, room to improve. Punt returns, well that one is embarrassing, and the player in question now has to redeem himself.

    Turnovers, inefficiency, weird weather, and bad breaks. Smells like defeat to me.

    Correctable ? All but the weather. How the Irish go about it ? Not up to you and me, yet I’ll bet the Ranch on this: This Coaching Staff will have it corrected by the 10th. And in ways some will disagree with, others will agree with, and some who’ll mock it.

    Patience folks, now if we’re talking about this same scenario next week, unleash the Kraken.

    I am sure the starting lineup will differ very little next week. Coaches who read this will know what I am speaking of. The effort must be different, and again the defense will be as advertised just one week better. The Offense will be more focused, and the Special Teams will be worth watching for the price of Popcorn.

    As the elder Holtz always said after the 1st game, the greatest improvement teams make is between week 1 and week 2.

    What though the odds…………

    • nudeman - Sep 4, 2011 at 7:44 PM

      “As the elder Holtz always said after the 1st game, the greatest improvement teams make is between week 1 and week 2.”

      I’m assuming that applies to Michigan as well

    • plattcop2 - Sep 5, 2011 at 4:28 AM

      What are you smoking when you say the Head Coach’s disgusting antics “happen on every team, all the time”? Yes – this type of behavior does occur at some other schools but I don’t believe it is as widespread as you claim. Furthermore – you don’t justify bad behavior by pointing to other bad bahavior. Kelly was an embarrassment to the University. One wonders if he was taking off-season lessons from Nebraska’s Bo Pellini on how to curse/scream at and berate players on the sideline.

      • tedlinko - Sep 6, 2011 at 2:35 AM

        I’m wondering if you use the word “disgusting antics” to describe Lou Holtz as well. Go back and look at the game tapes. He was every bit as vocal and animated. The one thing Kelly has going against him is a little bit of genetics. When he gets worked up, his face starts to look like a tomato. But I was on the sidelines and at practice during the 86 and 87 seasons. I can tell you that Lou could get in a player’s face with the best of them.

  6. l7room - Sep 4, 2011 at 7:31 PM

    Watched the game for a bit and saw the first drive. The thing that got my attention was how the players reacted to the plays they made. The players acted as though they had won the world championship on the first drive!!! USF played football, while ND acted like they were playing some other sport. Act like you’ve been there and then you will pay attention to the details needed to win. The coach should have called a timeout and gotten his team in check. ND needs to play football and respect the fact that a game has 4 15 minute quarters, celebrate at the end of the game after you have shaken the hands of the other team. I would have thought the parents of ND players would have told them to respect the game and play it well. What I saw was a team not ready to play like they were there to show the respect of being a ND team.

  7. nudeman - Sep 4, 2011 at 7:50 PM

    If, after this game was over, a story came out that Charlie Weis was actually – somehow – the Coach, I’d have believed it. This was an embarrassment of epic proportions. South Florida. Really??? Bring back Syracuse and Connecticut. Batten down the hatches for Navy.

    And I see all sorts of excuses and nonsense here. Like “Rees really sparked to team”.

    Bullshit.

    The crowd had 2 hours to go out, get lubricated, and start all over again like it was still opening kickoff. The team had 2 hours to listen to Kelly berate them for stupidity. I could go on.

    This is a team in trouble, I’m afraid.

    South Florida???? Come on man. I thought this was the University of Notre Dame I was cheering for.

    • Keith Arnold - Sep 5, 2011 at 4:39 AM

      Nude,
      Think you’re way off base here. First off, you seem like a smart guy. Don’t say silly things like “embarrassment of epic proportions.” UConn made a BCS game. USF might too. Navy took Jim Tressel and T Pryor to the wire. I like to think the readers that commenters here watch college football, not live in a time machine that keeps them stuck in 1988.

      As for the crowd, that was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen. THOUSANDS of people sat and waited in the concourse. I walked around the stadium to check it out. Over two hours later, nearly all of them came back in. Way more did that than went out to the lightning field and parking lots in the torrents of rain and severe storms to drink beer.

      It was a terribly disappointing Saturday, but Hyperbole will get you nowhere on this blog, and you are a good contributor here.

      • nudeman - Sep 5, 2011 at 10:00 AM

        Keith,
        Maybe “epic proportions” was a tad hyperbolic, but not that much. When you consider everything we’ve been hearing about them returning 17 of 22 starters after closing strong and winning their last 4 games … I mean, come on. Who exactly expected them to come out and lose to South Florida?

        If you factor in my own disappointment and my expectations for this being a breakout year for Kelly and the Irish, that’s how I get to “epic proportions”. HOW they lost – the penalties, missed FG, looking so disorganized and poorly coached and Kelly giving up on his QB after a half of football – it makes me wonder what the hell kind of a team they have. I seriously am concerned they could go in and get walloped by Michigan.

  8. mmcss690 - Sep 4, 2011 at 11:18 PM

    Nudeman, it’s not rationalization, it’s called looking for the good in people. But maybe after your MONTHS of being a blogger on this sight you have more insight than the rest of us who have only been here for a month or less.

    • nudeman - Sep 5, 2011 at 11:16 AM

      No idea what you’re referring to. I’m a garden variety contributor here and a big ND fan. I have no more or less insight than anyone else; just my own opinions. I will say this: I am stunned at the number of apologists here. The manner in which they lost was VERY disturbing.

      Look, it’s pretty simple. There are a small number of possibilities going forward:

      1. The opener was a total anomaly and ND will come out against Mich looking sharp.
      2. The opener was an ominous sign that all is not well and we’re in for a long year.
      3. The proverbial “something in between”.

      Where do you stand?
      Unfortunately I’m leaning toward #2. Yes, they looked THAT bad.

      • nudeman - Sep 5, 2011 at 11:26 AM

        And btw, I hope I’m 100% wrong, that they beat Mich 44-6 and you all pile on me on Sunday morn.

      • oxnardpat - Sep 5, 2011 at 12:01 PM

        What I saw was an Irish team controlling both sides of the ball, including containing a mobile experienced quarterback and moving the ball against a defense with a lot of Florida’s famous speed. The Irish could move the ball, the Bulls could not. Did the Irish make mistakes? Yes. Could they have been at worse moments? No. Even though they were behind from the first few minutes, until Ruffer missed the field goal, I was confident they were going to pull it out. And that was because they were pushing South Florida around all day. I would say “all is not well” if they were the ones being pushed around, but that just wasn’t happening. Dropped passes and fumbles are easier to fix than having gaping holes in your defensive front or having opponents having clear, unblocked routes to our QB. So don’t freak out just yet.

      • tedlinko - Sep 6, 2011 at 2:50 AM

        Nude, What I saw was a team that “offensively” made just about every mistake you could make, at the worst possible time you could make it, yet still lost the game by 3 points. It’s a loss, absolutely, and there are no moral victories. I don’t feel better because we lost by 3 than by 30…except for this.

        The reason we didn’t lose by thirty was the defense. They didn’t miss a beat — picking up where they left off last year. The first TD was a fumble return, and, while USF did move the chains a few times on two of the FG drives, the D stiffened and kept them out of the end zone. THe 3rd FG was set up by the fumbled punt return.

        Bottom line, it’s hard to see the offense screwing up that much again. If they execute, the D will do it’s job and that should put them in a position to win.

        As for the QB situation, I really like Crist and have wanted him to succeed. But it’s hard to look past what you see. And what I see is that the team just seems to play more consistently with Rees behind center. I”m not sure why that is — maybe they just have more confidence in him.

  9. papadec - Sep 5, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    Regarding dropped punts – when Cam McDaniel committed last year there was a highlight tape of him, including returning kickoffs & punts. Why isn’t he in?

  10. nddan1 - Sep 5, 2011 at 6:56 PM

    alot of good points and counter’s, but the bottom line is the outcome and the way they played and were prepared is totally unexceptable. its an embarrasment to lose a home opener against an outclassed opponent..period! they had better feel the urgency come sat. night

    • nudeman - Sep 5, 2011 at 7:00 PM

      I believe the word would be “unacceptable” nddan1

      • nddan1 - Sep 5, 2011 at 7:21 PM

        sorry bout that….to much texting

  11. uwndguy - Sep 6, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    This game should have been won by the Irish, but they shot themselves in the foot way too many times. They still have the potential for a very good season, but it was a horrible way to start the season.

    Also, Brian Kelly needs to stop with his embarrassing antics on the sidelines. I get it, it’s college football and coaches are going to yell at their players. BUT, you can get your point across with 30 seconds of yelling, rather than screaming F bombs at a young kid for 3 straight minutes. That’s not motivation.

  12. gtih - Sep 6, 2011 at 1:07 PM

    Ty Willingham MUST GO!!! This program will never overcome this inept play as long as he is at the helm. Why can’t the administration see this? What we need is a pro-style offense with a coach who has a winning pedigree. Give him a bloated contract to set him up for life to give him incentive to stay and there’s no way we can lose. Wake up administrators!!!

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