It seems backward. The University of South Florida, the youngest program in a BCS conference, is not supposed to be able to travel to one of the cathedrals of college football and topple a program as storied as Notre Dame.
But it happened.
It wasn’t always pretty, and it wasn’t quick, but the Bulls notched an historic road victory, toppling the No. 16 Fighting Irish 23-20 in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.
“So (I’m) just really proud of this football team,” USF coach Skip Holtz said. “(Notre Dame has) played football 120 years. (USF is) celebrating our 104th victory today as a program. So, when you talk about how young we are, I don’t think you can measure what a win like this for us means on the road with our youth.”
Notre Dame came out strong, marching 79 yards in seven plays, but the eighth turned the tide of the game. USF safety Jerrell Young stripped Notre Dame running back Jonas Gray with the Irish knocking on USF’s door. Cornerback Kayvon Webster saw the ball was loose and reacted instantly, scooping it and streaking 96 yards down the sideline to give USF an unlikely 7-0 lead when it looked like the Irish were unstoppable.
“You look up and they’ve had the ball and have driven the whole length of the field, at probably 15 yards a clip, and you look up and you’re winning 7-0; hello, kind of a good feeling at that point with where we were,” Holtz said.
It looked even more unlikely when USF, now leading 10-0, benefitted from another Irish turnover deep in Bulls’ territory. After moving back three yards after a negative rushing play, Notre Dame lined up at the 7-yard line with quarterback Dayne Crist taking to the air to try to get the Irish on the scoreboard. But USF linebacker DeDe Lattimore was there to intercept the ball and give USF a new possession when it looked like the defense was about to give up its shutout.
For the second time in the game, Notre Dame – a team Holtz himself had played for and watched his father coach to the 1988 national championship – had gotten the ball inside the USF 5-yard line and come away with no points.
In the first possession of the third quarter, it happened for a third time. Quarterback Tommy Rees replaced Crist for the second half but repeated Crist’s errors. A deflected pass found the hands of a fully-extended, diving Michael Lanaris. If it hadn’t already, it started to feel like “Touchdown Jesus” was not smiling on the Irish.
Irish eyes weren’t smiling for much of the day, which saw USF lead 16-0 at halftime and featured two evacuations of the 80,795 bodies in the stadium. The game took five hours and 59 minutes to complete – two hours and 53 minutes of which were spent in a pair of weather delays, the first such delays in the 123-year history of Notre Dame football, at home or on the road.
It was a day of balance for USF. The defense yielded 508 yards, but created five turnovers. The offense produced just one touchdown, but it was a stellar 14-play, 80-yard drive at a time of need for the Bulls, whose lead seemed to be in danger with the Irish offense gaining traction. That score, a two-yard B.J. Daniels to Evan Landi connection, gave USF the 23 points it would need to hold off Notre Dame, which closed the margin late but fell short when Lindsey Lamar recovered an onside-kick attempt with 14 seconds left.
Though Holtz said the win will rank among the Bulls’ greatest to date, the team now sets its sights on bigger goals.
“What we have not done is we have not been able to line up and play consistently throughout the course of a year and win a Big East championship,” he said. “That’s the No.1 goal that we have as a football team right now with what we’re trying to do.”
With a win over the Irish, the Bulls are again planted in the national spotlight. With three consecutive home games against non-BCS opposition, USF has a chance to climb into the national rankings before the conference opener at Pittsburgh on Sept. 29.