The first half of Notre Dame's first football game of 2011 was defined by nearly every tenet inherent to poor football teams.
Then lightning struck. Repeatedly.
Severe weather, notably "sky to ground" lightning in the South Bend area resulted in a two-hour and ten minute delay following the halftime gun; South Florida leading Notre Dame 16-0 as 80,000 fans scurried for shelter in the Stadium's adjacent concourses and nearby buildings.
The impetus for the Bulls' lead, and the turning point of the contest, was forged at the tail end of a crisp, eight-play, 76-yard opening drive by the Irish – one that ended disastrously for Brian Kelly's offense thanks to a strip, scoop, and 96-yard sprint-and-score by South Florida cornerback Kayvon Webster.
Notre Dame's first of five ill-timed miscues belonged to senior running back Jonas Gray, and the fifth fumble of his career staked South Florida to a 7-0 lead.
It was fitting that the error-prone Irish offense yielded the opening stanza's only touchdown as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit repeatedly rose to the challenge, limiting the Bulls to six points on two field goals by junior kicker Maikon Bonani despite starting field position at the Notre Dame 40 and 20-yard line, respectively. Bonani added a third field goal en route to a 16-0 South Florida advantage at the break.
Rees' attempted rescueEnter Tommy Rees, Notre Dame's 2010 season-saver and Saturday, the decided fan favorite after senior quarterback Dayne Crist served as head coach Brian Kelly's de facto first-half scapegoat for a universally inconsistent and sloppy Irish offense.
"We didn't expect to have to make this move so it's going to require us to evaluate the quarterback situation and make another decision," said Kelly of the QB switch. "This was a step back for us as it relates to where we thought we were going."
Of his deciding factor for the quarterback change, Kelly offered, "Production. We didn't feel like we produced the way we should have. Mistakes were made. It wasn't a difficult decision to make that. It was difficult because it through us into an area we didn't think we'd have to go to."
A sharp drive to open the second half saw Rees move the Irish 45 yards in six plays, but his 1st and Goal pass from the South Florida five-yard line glanced off the shoulder of unwitting sophomore wideout T.J. Jones, resulting in a drive-killing interception.
The turnover marked the third for the Irish inside the Bulls' five yard line in the game's first 22 minutes.
Rees and the Irish nonetheless responded six minutes later, cutting the Bulls lead to 16-7 with a 24-yard touchdown toss to senior Michael Floyd.
But sloppy play continued for both sides as nearly-automatic Irish place-kicker David Ruffer shanked a 27-yard field goal, and South Florida managed just 48 yards on 17 third quarter snaps.
Unlike the Irish, Skip Holtz's USF crew managed to avoid the decisive error that plagued Notre Dame throughout, never committing a turnover to present the hosts with a short-field advantage.
That prudent approach afforded the visitors a chance to put a nail in Notre Dame's coffin and the Bulls responded, embarking on a 14-play, 80-yard drive – one aided by two costly penalties on Irish cornerback Gary Gray – and concluding in a one-yard touchdown pass from B.J. Daniels to tight end Evan Landi that extended the lead to 23-7 at the 11:05 mark of the final quarter.
It was the game's determining score, and one of great pride for Holtz and his young program.
"13 years ago we didn't own a pair of cleats, or a helmet, or a football at South Florida," Holtz offered. "And being the youngest program at the BCS...having an opportunity to come up here to Notre Dame and win, I just think speaks volumes of the leadership we have at this University.
"The players have bought in and competed their tails off."
Rees and the Irish responded to the Bulls' 23rd and final point with a 12-play, 76-yard drive that resulted in a Cierre Wood one-yard touchdown burst to trim the deficit to 23-13. But Rees' ensuing two-point conversion pass to Michael Floyd landed incomplete and with just 7:35 remaining, the dwindling game clock exacerbated the host's dire situation.
So too did a second weather delay, this time at the 4:21 mark due to another storm front moving through the area. A second stadium evacuation followed before the team's resumed play approximately 42 minutes later, the Irish possessing the ball facing a 2nd and 6 their own 13-yard line.
Rees' first pass landed behind a well-covered Floyd and into the hands of Bulls safety Jerrell Young, the team's fifth and final turnover of the contest.
The Irish added a late touchdown on a 10-play, 99-yard drive, but South Florida's Lamar Lindsey secured Ruffer's (nearly perfect) onsides kick, beating Floyd to the ball with 21 seconds remaining, officially ending the contest.
Notre Dame out-gained their visitors 508 to 254, but nonetheless fell to 0-1 on the season. The Irish will travel to Ann Arbor to take on rival Michigan next Saturday night. The Wolverines won a weather-shortened game, 34-10 over Western Michigan earlier Saturday afternoon.
Kick-off is set for 8 PM.
Note: Irisheyes.com will have more on Saturday's loss with its follow-up column and game notebook, as well as its traditional Sunday Drive Thru review.