30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Lightning strikes twice in South Florida’s first visit

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“It was hell.”

There is no hesitation behind former Notre Dame offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr.’s first thoughts when he hears mention of South Florida. “Hell. That game was terrible.”

Unintentionally echoing Sherman’s definition of war is not usually applicable to a college football game, but Golic’s blunt thought can be forgiven.

When the Bulls visited South Bend to open the 2011 season, their only trip before this weekend’s quickly-scheduled meeting, it was expected to be a blowout sugar-coated with reminiscing sparked by South Florida head coach Skip Holtz. Instead …

Two rain delays, lengthening the game to exactly five hours and 59 minutes. Five Irish turnovers, including a goal-line fumble returned 96 yards for a touchdown within minutes of the opening kickoff. An unexpected and still controversial quarterback change at halftime. Golic remembers it all.

“There were so many things about that entire experience that are things I’ve tried in vain to wipe from my memory because it was an awful afternoon,” he said this week. “It was all bad, all things that were bad.”

Counterpoint: Not all of it was bad. I thought the 2011 season opener was a blast. I said as much when I was first introduced as the new scribe of “Inside the Irish” when Keith Arnold asked what my favorite game to date had been at Notre Dame Stadium:

“Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.”

Truth is, I undersold how long our group of eight seniors spent in the closest dorm to the Stadium, enjoying the rewards of demanding the dorm pizzeria open for business during the interlude.

Golic had food, as well, the team ripping through anything edible in the locker room. Elsewhere, through no fault of anyone’s, the press box ran out of reserves. Stadium operations had, for obvious reason, not expected to host a full press box for a six-hour game, not to mention the severe weather threat eliminated the chances of any additional food being hustled in.

Then again, media members were not exactly twiddling their thumbs looking for something to do. Not only did they need to try to decipher how the No. 16 Irish were losing 16-0 to South Florida, but this was also the first weather delay in the history of Notre Dame Stadium. Everyone watching the game — in-person or on TV — had one question: When would the game resume?

“We had been live blogging the game,” said Allan Joseph, then a junior and Sports Editor of The Observer, Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper. “We got a fair amount of traffic that day because people thought someone in the press box might have an insight. We had no insight.

“I remember that being the source of my stress, too. It wasn’t like I could kick back and watch other games. I have to pretend to have knowledge on the inside that I didn’t have.”

Much like many sportswriters have scrambled to become amateur epidemiologists these days, Joseph and the rest of the press box were doing their best to gain five-minute certifications as meteorologists.

The press box did not have the NBC broadcast audio, so The Observer Editor-in-Chief funneled those weather updates to Joseph through the live blog, from the comfort of Alumni Hall with pizza and beverages at hand.

“Everyone could go back to their dorms,” Joseph said when reminded of that helpful assist. “I remember being very jealous of that. Here I was in a tie, there’s only so many press box hot dogs you can eat. This is bringing back memories in a way I don’t particularly enjoy.”

That NBC broadcast would be only so helpful for so long. With the usual “ND on NBC” producer assigned to South Korea to cover the track and field world championships, Tommy Roy stepped into the production truck. With golf his daily focus, Roy is a bit more familiar with weather delays than most of those associated with college football. (He took time away from U.S. Open Championship prep this week to reminisce about this unique endeavor; by the way, because of the U.S. Open, Notre Dame’s reunion with South Florida this Saturday [2:30 ET] is on the USA Network.)

“I’m a weather psycho because if we get just one lightning strike within 10 miles and they shut down a golf tournament, you have to be prepared for that,” Roy said. “Knowing that the forecast was not a promising one, I came prepared for a rain delay. In golf, we just air whole tournaments.”

Once the halftime studio had vamped for as long as was feasible, Roy cued up the 2010 home finale, an upset of No. 15 Utah in quarterback Tommy Rees’ first start.

We didn’t pay much attention to that in the dorm room. We’d been there the previous November. It was fun enough, but USC was considering blowing a 19-3 lead at home to Minnesota. Furthermore, there were other mini-fridges to empty.

Roy was at least dry. His wife and two children were at the game. He could only hope they had found shelter.

Notre Dame Stadium
An evacuated and thus truly empty Notre Dame Stadium. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Paul Reuvers, Class of 1988, had to corral his 78-year-old parents and his three siblings to all head back to their weekend getaway within walking distance of campus. By the time the entire clan had gotten back to their house about a mile away, they were soaked to the bone.

“That was probably the most terrible game ever,” Reuvers said. “Other than a family weekend, it was awful. We were trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

Reuvers at least found shelter. A group of freshmen, attending their first game as students, concluded the 17 minutes to Carroll Hall was too far a hike for what should be a short storm. The group of four made it all the way to South Quad before they found a tree to crowd under.

“We were very stuck on the fact that this was our first game as Notre Dame students,” Peter Hall said. “We are not going back to the dorm. We are sticking this out. We need to be here for this game. Very much — this is our first experience and we have to ride it out.

“It sucked, but we were stubborn.”

Only when Hall and his three friends — correction: “friends” is generous. “These were very much the people you met at first, you were friends for like a week or two, and then you realize you’re not going to get along.” — only when they saw rowdy groups departing Alumni Hall did the freshmen foolishly conclude their two hours of misery were worth it.

While his parents stayed indoors, Reuvers and his siblings and their children also returned to their seats. They had refueled in a fashion comparable to how dorm rooms handled the delay, and all logic suggested Notre Dame could come back from the deficit. After all, three turnovers had determined the first half. The 96-yard touchdown off a goal-line fumble the kind of chaos that would not repeat itself (for a few weeks).

South Florida 2011

South Florida 2011
Jonas Gray‘s fateful opening-drive fumble could not have bounced much better for South Florida. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Similar thoughts held in the Irish locker room. As they sought the delicate balance of staying ready for the game and not wearing themselves out mentally during the interminable wait, the players essentially found a reset.

“It was kind of a microcosm of what we went through (the last few months) for some of the sports that had their seasons disrupted,” Golic said. “Everything that you did before goes out the window outside of the score. You’re going to have to get completely warmed up again, you’re going to have to get completely back into how you’re going to address the gameplan going forward. Some of these adjustments might still apply, but how you’re going to go about executing physically becomes basically a complete restart.

“You were getting dry. There were guys getting all the way out of their pads again, getting new jerseys on, trying to get as comfortable as you could. That was a difficult mental battle of it.”

More fans were filtering back in than Joseph expected. The stands were not filled as play resumed, but they were closer to full than any other adjective.

“When you have crappy weather and you’re down 16-0, whatever is in your dorm fridge starts to look a lot more appealing than going back to the game,” Joseph said.

I can confirm that was a debate between at least a few students. The compromise was to assume Stadium security would not be inspecting pockets very closely upon reentry, an assumption that proved correct.

After the Irish defense forced a quick three-and-out, with Rees having replaced starter Dayne Crist, the first Notre Dame possession of the second half ended with … a turnover at the goal line, this time an interception from the 5. Rees would finish 24-of-34 for 296 passing yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, while Crist threw for 95 yards on 7-of-15 passing with one interception.

Notre Dame yet got within 23-16 and had possession of the ball when lightning struck twice, literally.

Another delay, lasting 43 minutes.

Hall and his freshmen acquaintances had connected with some Carroll Hall upperclassmen who assured the neophytes 1) the walk was not as long as they thought and 2) there would be refreshments awaiting them all in the upperclassmen’s fridges upon returning to the furthest dorm from the Stadium. Reuvers’ siblings could not be talked into heading back to the game yet again, only his wife would oblige the fanaticism.

Roy and NBC were essentially in a familiar holding pattern. Joseph simply hoped, “Please, just let this be over.”

Golic hoped it would not be.

“A lot of here we go again,” he said. “We figured we were close enough where it was probably going to finish out, hopefully. You’re just trying, it’s desperation mode, you’re trying to claw back in however you can.”

A completionist at heart, knowing reentry was not assured after this delay, I did laps of the concourse, trying to fathom the events of the day, more perplexed by the off-field dynamics than on-field. Whereupon, I came across what is my favorite moment tangentially-tied to college football to this day:

There was jubilation to their voices as they reached “19 bottles of …” They knew the end was in sight, something that was not true of the football game.

Resuming promptly at 9:24 p.m. EST, on the very first snap coming out of the second delay, Rees then all-but ended the game with his second interception. 15 minutes later, the sweet mercy of a 23-20 loss.

“I don’t think any of the players wanted to be interviewed afterward,” Joseph said. “I don’t know that I wanted to interview anyone.”

Pretty much.

“It was an exhaustive day, and to have the loss come the way it did,” Golic said. “The change, all the things, the ramifications that we knew were going to come from that one game, that was as ready as anyone’s ever been to get out of a stadium.”

With one exception. A group of seniors lingered until ushers politely asked them to depart. Perhaps their halftime refueling granted them expendable energy, maybe they knew their senior year dreams had already been dashed, mostly they were trying to comprehend the last six hours of their lives.

It was the last game Reuvers’ parents attended in the Stadium, one that cemented his realization that sometimes “the most miserable game experiences” yield the most fun, a thought he first pondered the weekend Notre Dame lost to Syracuse in the snow in 2008.

Despite his stubbornness to see as much of that game as he could, the only detail Hall remembers from that Saturday is that tree on South Quad. Really, it is all he recalls from his freshman season.

“I can’t underscore the point enough, I remember being under that tree way more than I remember any play from that football game.”

RELATED READING: Five Things We Learned: Notre Dame vs. South Florida

The losing team outgaining the winning by exactly double, 508 yards to 254. The winners converting only two of 14 third downs. Their leading rusher gaining just 40 yards while the defeated boasted a back efficiently into triple digits.

Four freshmen with bleached blonde hair, all wearing “The Shirt,” cowering under a tree for two hours.
Eight seniors ordering dorm pizza and emptying an RA’s stockpiles with reckless abandon.
A family bonding around a dryer as its token foolish brother headed back into the rain.
A press box out of food, a locker room actively trying to follow suit, a production truck relying on a finished product from nine months earlier.

I stand by my statement from my debut here. The 2011 South Florida game stands the test of time; it was such a unique experience.

“It was hell.”

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
Three overtimes, two No. 2s, one goal-line fumble
Te’o’s emotions & interceptions overwhelm No. 18 Michigan
Night games return, ‘Crazy Train’ debuts
Blowing out USC completes Irish return
Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated
The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11
Godsey heroics provide Davie hope
Last-minute Golson-to-Koyack TD beats No. 14 Stanford in the rain
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991
Honorable Mentions