ND-USF, 2011: Theatre Of The Absurd
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Notre Dame-USF, 2011: A Theatre Of The Absurd

In 50 years of following Notre Dame's football program, two games stand out to me when I define a surreal occurrence that seems like something from the theatre of the absurd.

The first was at USC in 1974. That's when reigning national champion and 9-1 Notre Dame positioned itself to play 11-0 Alabama for No. 1 again in the Orange Bowl while taking a 24-0 first-half lead versus the Pac-12 champ Trojans. USC then scored 55 points in 16:54 for a 55-24 triumph.

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Lightning threats and storms forced the evacuation of Notre Dame Stadium twice in the 2011 opener versus South Florida.
Lightning threats and storms forced the evacuation of Notre Dame Stadium twice in the 2011 opener versus South Florida. (Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Think about that. Probably not even a current FBS superpower such as Alabama or Clemson could score 55 points in 17 minutes against a Division II or III team, never mind against another superpower at the time, and one that possessed the top-rated defense.

The second occurred 37 years later. How bizarre was the one previous meeting between the Fighting Irish and South Florida in the season opener at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 3, 2011? Let us count the ways.

• Of the 1,298 games the program has played, including 21 “vacated” wins in 2012-13, the lone contest with the Bulls is the only known one to have a weather delay and evacuation of the stands.

Because of severe lightning, the game was halted two hours and 10 minutes while South Florida held a 16-0 halftime lead. Then, with 4:21 remaining in the contest, another 43-minutes delay occurred after a second evacuation.

The official kickoff was at 3:40 p.m. and the contest ended at 9:39 p.m. — a total of 5:59, making it easily the lengthiest game in school history.

• Notre Dame’s 508 yards of total offense were the exact double of South Florida’s 254. Propelling the Bulls’ win was their 5-0 advantage in turnovers.

• The game’s initial series saw Notre Dame drive 76 yards in seven plays to South Florida’s 4-yard line — when the Bulls then forced a fumble by running back Jonas Gray that was returned 96 yards for a touchdown by Kayvon Webster.

Later in this same 2011 season, Notre Dame had the ball at USC’s 1-yard line when a fumbled Irish snap was returned for an 80-yard touchdown by the Trojans. That 14-point swing proved pivotal in USC’s 31-17 victory.

Now think about this: What are the odds of not one but two series in the same year resulting not only in a fumble inside the opponent’s 5-yard line — but then also getting returned the other way for a touchdown?

• Three of Notre Dame’s five turnovers versus South Florida occurred in the red zone, including an end-zone interception toss by starting quarterback Dayne Crist in the second quarter. Then in the third quarter at the South Florida 5-yard line, a Tommy Rees pass that bounced off the helmet of receiver TJ Jones was picked off.

The latter sent head coach Brian Kelly into an epic rage that was captured by the NBC cameras … and eventually helped tone down some of his sideline demeanor.

In that same South Florida game, an early Cierre Wood touchdown run was also called back because of a penalty, and the Irish again ended up with no points produced on the possession.

• Notre Dame kicker David Ruffer, a Lou Groza Award finalist the previous year while opening his career with 23 consecutive made field goals, missed his lone attempt versus South Florida, from 30 yards, in the first half. That too would prove crucial in the three-point loss.

• Crist lost his starting position by halftime in the opener. How often does that occur in college football?

• Oh, did we mention that the head coach of South Florida was Notre Dame alumnus Skip Holtz, the son of 1986-96 Fighting Irish icon Lou Holtz, who directed a school record 23-game winning streak while posting the most recent national title in 1988?

Following that shocking upset, Holtz went 7-16 the rest of his career at South Florida and was fired after his third season in 2012. He is now thriving at Louisiana Tech, where he has a 6-0 bowl record.

Nine years later, USF will have another son of a former Notre Dame head coach, Charlie Weis Jr., calling the plays for the Bulls versus the Fighting Irish.

No other repeat from 2011 will be welcome, especially lightning striking twice.

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