Notre Dame Football: The South Florida Loss Is Not the End of the World

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Notre Dame Football: The South Florida Loss Is Not the End of the World
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Well, this article shouldn't even exist.

But it does, so let's get it over with.

After Notre Dame's 23-20 loss yesterday to South Florida, it's so easy to lose hope and jump ship after all such a debacle, but it is imperative that we keep cool heads and dissect what really happened yesterday.

First off, kudos to Skip Holtz and South Florida. They played error-free football and did what was necessary to win the game. B.J. Daniels avoided costly turnovers (and won...I wonder if there's a connection) and USF played their type of offense at their tempo while keeping the Notre Dame offense off the field for long periods of time. USF's special teams play was also incredibly solid as they made some big plays which ultimately determined the outcome of the game. Skip Holtz had them composed and ready to play.

I said it before the season started, and I'll say it again, USF could very well win the Big East, plus some.

As for Notre Dame...ugh.

Five turnovers, a missed field goal, seven crucial penalties (including four personal fouls), five dropped passes, extremely poor special teams play and another new quarterback controversy. Even despite the football gods voicing their extreme displeasure at the ways things were going (twice, I might add), the team still lost in soul-crushing fashion.

So who dropped the ball (literally and figuratively)?

Let's start with coaching.

First off, I want to say that the game plan was incredibly sound. The offense ran up and down the field all day against a touted USF defense for 508 yards, while the Irish defense only gave up 254 in return despite being put in horrible situations. The offensive and defensive play-calling was about as good as one can expect.

However, the team was not mentally tough throughout the game, especially in the putrid first half. I say throughout the game because the team really did show heart at some times in fighting back against a quality opponent and digging deep to find plays. However, it was those moments, those bonehead plays and the missed opportunities that will haunt Brian Kelly.

The team mentally folded at some of the worst possible times, such as Theo Riddick muffing a punt and dropping passes on third down, T.J. Jones (who I've said has some of the best hands I've ever seen) having a ball hit him in the chest in the end zone twice and both times leading to an interception and the kicking phenom David Ruffer missing basically a chip shot when we most needed points.

If this team is going to cut down on mistakes and make a run for the BCS, they have to be more focused, and in retrospect, that is why this one is on the coaches for not having the team mentally ready to play championship football. Brian Kelly should have had the team ready for the speed of the game and while he did a decent job of adjusting, his players looked lost at times, and that is totally unacceptable for such an experienced team.

Now on to the players, who fought their tails off and did all they could, but ultimately failed to follow through when it mattered.

Starting with the offense, there was a comedy of errors, starting with Jonas Gray AGAIN failing to hold onto the football in the red zone. It was such an enormous blow that snowballed throughout what I can only describe as a retched first half of play.

Dayne Crist started out on fire, making great decisions with the football, but one ill-advised throw into the end zone completely changed all of that. He simply lost his composure and while his wide receivers didn't help him out much, there was no excuse for him to be so rattled. So in steps Tommy Rees, and while the gunshot wounds to the foot continued, the Irish managed to claw back into the game but simply made too many mistakes and ran out of time.

So now the break-out season already seems on the brink of collapsing upon itself after only the first week. All of the sportswriters are out in force already calling the 2011 season a disaster, and even listening to some of the Notre Dame fanbase makes it seem like all hope is lost.

However, and I can not emphasize this enough, this is the worst possible time to panic.

Everything negative that happened on Saturday can be fixed. There are still no glaring weaknesses except for the depth at running back and corner, which were already concerns.

The penalties, turnovers and brain farts can all be rectified with a week of practice. The talent, experience and coaching that everyone had been lauding in the preseason is still there; none of that has all of a sudden disappeared.

A ton of positives came out of the debacle yesterday, starting with the only member on offense who seemed to be ready for the game: Cierre Wood. Wood had 148 yards on only 27 touches and was virtually unstoppable when given space. He looked extremely polished, and it is possible that with more touches he could get past 1,000 yards this year. If Brian Kelly wants to be successful this year, he must get the ball to No. 20.

The offensive line left a lot to be desired but still opened up giant holes for the running game, and did a decent job in pass protection against an aggressive defense.Tommy Rees looked like the man for the job at quarterback, as much as I hate to say it. He made gorgeous throws into tight coverage and despite South Florida basically playing the pass all second half, Rees put up monster numbers. The interception after the second delay was a poor decision, however, considering the circumstances Rees was in, he did an incredible job coming off the bench.

As for Dayne Crist, I love that guy having met him and he still has all the physical tools, he just didn't get it done and lost his composure big time. This baffling meltdown likely leaves Rees as the starter until further notice.

One of the things Rees did the best was get the ball to Michael Floyd. Floyd was a beast and simply could not be covered by USF's secondary. He basically did what he wanted with the corner and safety and made things happen after catching the ball. Tyler Eifert also had a nice game with nine receptions for 93 yards, and TJ Jones, despite his shortcomings, made some nice catches. As for the rest of the receiving corps, they all know what they are capable of and simply had a bad game. Once again, something that can be fixed.

Turning to the defense, the hype may be justified for this unit after what they had to go through to keep the Irish in the game. Even by committing the same dumb penalties as the rest of the team, the defense played very well. South Florida did not have one single play over 20 yards on offense and only averaged three yards per rush and seven yards per catch. Eventually, they wore down a bit on South Florida's only touchdown (where they needed two penalties to extend the drive); however, they can not be blamed for the loss.

Special teams will have to be looked at, though. Ben Turk seems to have regressed from last year and had some horrible punts that gave USF good field position. In addition to Theo Riddick's hiccups, the punting unit gave up a big return that lead to points for USF. David Ruffer certainly surprised us all by missing an easy field goal, and the kickoff return team could not generate anything despite having two electrifying returners back. This is a unit that needs guidance.

So after all of that, optimism abounds (at least for me). This team is still BCS caliber and can still get there if they just buckle down and play smarter. Even Coach Kelly said (perhaps comically), "That is as bad as we could've possibly played, so there's no reason to not improve." This team will get better and will do what is needed.

Last year, it was the Tulsa loss that brought out the best in this team. Now the adversity comes earlier and this team has been there before. If they were capable of such a logic-defying turnaround last year, why shouldn't it be possible in time for Michigan this week?

Let's just wait and see, Irish nation. This team can still shake down the thunder—it all depends on whether they can forge an identity out of the smoldering ruins of September 3rd.

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