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Stunner in South Bend: Bulls top Irish
Posted Sep 4, 2011 by Adam Adkins
Updated Sep 3, 2011 at 11:42 PM
SOUTH BEND, Ind. This much is certain: It was well worth the wait for the University of South Florida.
The Bulls had to endure two weather delays totaling two hours, 53 minutes Saturday and the game took nearly six hours to complete, but when all was said and done they had one of the biggest wins in program history, a 23-20 season-opening triumph over No. 16 Notre Dame.
“This is definitely big,” USF quarterback B.J. Daniels said. “We were looking forward to this game, we were prepared for it, and to come out with a victory was definitely big for our program, to continue to take that next step, to solidify ourselves in the nation as a good team.”
A bend-but-don’t-break defense coupled with an 80-yard touchdown drive from the offense in the fourth quarter helped USF (1-0) stun the Irish in front of, at least at one point, 80,795 at Notre Dame Stadium and make Bulls coach Skip Holtz a winner in his return to his alma mater.
“It’s nerve-wracking enough to come in here and play the tradition and everything else with this university … but to throw everything else up on top of it, just how proud I am of the way this team handled themselves, the way they stayed poised, calmed,” Holtz said. “There were a lot of opportunities to flinch today, but real proud of the way they handled themselves.”
The USF defense surrendered 508 yards of total offense but came up big when it mattered most, producing three turnovers when the Irish were in the red zone. The first of those seemed to set the tone for the game.
The Irish offense marched right down the field on the game’s opening possession before USF safety Jerrell Young and cornerback Kayvon Webster combined on what would become the longest defensive score against Notre Dame in its program history. On third-and-goal from the 1, Young stripped running back Jonas Gray of the ball, and Webster scooped it up and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown.
“They had driven the length of the field at probably 15 yards a clip, and you look up and you’re winning 7-0,” Holtz said. “Kind of a good feeling at the point. It kind of symbolized a little bit of the day.”
It was one of four empty trips into the USF red zone for the Irish, who committed three turnovers on drives the reached inside the Bulls 5 and also missed a field goal. In total, Notre Dame had five turnovers, while the Bulls committed zero.
USF built a 16-0 advantage in the first half, thanks to the Webster touchdown and three Maikon Bonani field goals, but the Bulls and Irish then waited through a two-hour, 10-minute delay before returning to the field because of inclement weather in the area. It was the first time in Notre Dame’s 123-year history that a game was delayed because of weather.
When the teams did return for the second half, Notre Dame did its best to rally behind quarterback Tommy Rees, who took over for starter Dayne Crist and completed 24 of 34 passes for 296 yards. Rees led the Irish to their first score, hitting Michael Floyd on a 24-yard scoring pass, but the Bulls responded shortly after with their biggest offensive drive of the game.
Daniels engineered a 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive that he capped with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Landi. That gave the Bulls a 23-7 lead with 11:05 to play.
“We came out kind of slow after the rain delay, and it was very important to put up a touchdown,” Daniels said. “Not points, not a field goal, but a touchdown. And we did that.”
The Irish eventually cut it to 23-20 with 21 seconds remaining when Rees hit Floyd on an 8-yard scoring pass, but the ensuing onside kick was corralled by USF’s Lindsey Lamar. The Bulls then took a knee to kill the remaining time on the clock, touching off an emotional celebration, with Holtz and many players embracing on the field.
“I think that sent chills through everybody’s body,” Landi said. “We worked so hard, from the winter, to the spring, to the spring to Vero Beach. To be rewarded like that felt great as a team.”
“I said all week, I have not alluded to in any way, shape or form me coming back to Notre Dame. This game to me was such a selfish, miniscule part of this big win for our program,” Holtz said. “But just the comments from them was moving, ‘We’ve got your back coach, we love you, we thank you, we appreciate you, this one was for you.’ … It was an emotional moment for me, just to have the team respect me and to stay the things that they did to me.”