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Week One: South Florida

Matthew DeFranks | Monday, September 5, 2011

It was sunny at first, and then the rain came. And it came again. Then it got darker, and darker again, until everything was black.

Just as the weather ebbed and flowed, so did the Irish offense, as a mistake-ridden Notre Dame dropped its season opener to South Florida 23-20 Saturday.

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

Highlighted by a couple of long passes from senior quarterback Dayne Crist, the Irish (0-1) marched 79 yards in just seven plays to the South Florida one-yard line in the game’s opening drive. But the Irish squandered their chance when senior running back Jonas Gray fumbled at the goal-line. Cornerback Kayvon Webster scooped the ball up and ran 96 yards to give South Florida (1-0) an early 7-0 lead.

“[Notre Dame] had the ball and driven the whole length of the field, and you look up and you’re winning 7-0 — kind of a good feeling at that point with where we are,” Bulls coach Skip Holtz said. “Kind of symbolized a little bit of the day, especially when you look at this game statistically.”

Notre Dame racked up 508 yards of total offense while the Bulls were held to just 254 yards. The Irish, however, finished the game with five total turnovers while the Bulls played 60 minutes without committing a single one.

“People make mistakes in the first game all the time,” senior wide receiver Michael Floyd said. “Making mistakes is the way you lose games.”

In addition to the five turnovers, the Irish committed eight penalties, including four personal fouls that resulted in five South Florida first downs.

“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,” Kelly said. “The list is long.”

The Irish committed three first-half turnovers that resulted in just 10 South Florida points and a manageable 16-0 halftime deficit.

Crist, named the starter a mere two weeks ago, finished the game 7-for-15 for 95 yards and an interception before sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees replaced him at the start of the second half.

“We didn’t feel like we produced the way we should have,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t a difficult decision to make that. It was difficult because it threw us into an area where we weren’t thinking we had to go.”

Rees’ entrance followed a 2 hour, 10 minute weather delay due to lightning and heavy rain in the area. For the first time in Notre Dame history, weather forced the stoppage of play.

“The chaos was on the field for me,” Kelly said. “I think everyone that was involved in that should be commended. All those other things were left up to very capable people.”

On its first drive with Rees at quarterback, Notre Dame drove 44 yards to the South Florida five-yard line before a red-zone turnover ended another promising opportunity. Rees fired a pass over the middle to sophomore wide receiver T.J. Jones, who did not see the ball coming his way. The pass deflected off Jones’ helmet before being intercepted by Bulls linebacker Michael Lanaris, ending a drive in similar fashion to the game’s opening possession.

Notre Dame’s second possession of the half ended with the first score of the season, as Rees connected with Floyd on a 24-yard strike to narrow the deficit at 16-7. Floyd finished the day with a career-high 12 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He also passed former Irish wide receiver Jeff Samardzija for first place in career receptions at Notre Dame.

“I just go out there and play,” Floyd said. “Whatever the records are, that doesn’t bother me. My main focus is to help the team win in any way possible.”

South Florida responded with a 14-play, 80-yard drive, capped by Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels’ two-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Evan Landi, pushing the score to 23-7. The score marked South Florida’s lone offensive touchdown of the game.

After a one-yard touchdown by junior running back Cierre Wood and a failed two-point conversion cut the lead to 23-13, the Irish defense forced a punt and Notre Dame began the possession at its own nine yard-line.

One play later, a second weather delay postponed play for another 43 minutes.

When the game resumed again, Rees committed Notre Dame’s fifth and final turnover of the day, throwing an interception to South Florida safety Jerrell Young. The Bulls, however, were unable to score on the ensuing possession.

Rees led the Irish down the field in 10 plays on the next drive, culminating in Floyd’s second touchdown of the day, this one an eight-yard strike with just 21 seconds remaining. Irish junior tight end Tyler Eifert caught three passes for 45 yards during the drive.

“He’s a great player. He’s a big target, athletic, great hands,” Rees said of Eifert. “Tyler stepped up and he played extremely well down the stretch for us.”

Notre Dame nearly recovered Irish senior kicker David Ruffer’s onside kick, but South Florida wide receiver Lindsey Lamar snatched the ball before it fell into Irish hands. South Florida took a knee to run out the clock and hand Notre Dame its first loss of the season.

“We say this all the time. You can’t start winning until you stop losing, and the things that we did today out there obviously go to the heart of how you lose football games,” Kelly said. “There’s no quit in the group, but you can’t win playing like that.”