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USF challenged to stop ‘deep’ Notre Dame offense

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams leads the Fighting Irish with 205 all-purpose yards and is expected to test USF’s defense. He’s one of six featured backs for Notre Dame, a team with a potentially championship-caliber offense. NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS PHOTO

USF’s trip to South Bend is one soaked in personal storylines.

For offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr., it’s a sort of homecoming — returning to the field where his father, Charlie Weis Sr., was head coach from 2005-09 and where he started his career as a kid, but this time he’s on the opposite side. For head coach Jeff Scott, it’s a game he’s been waiting for his whole career.

But dreams were downplayed by the coaching staff for a potential reality — USF (1-0) stealing a win from No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0) on Saturday at 2:30 in front of just over 16,000 fans at Notre Dame Stadium. 

“To have opportunities early in the year to play some of the best programs in the country, it’s only gonna make you better,” Scott said. “You never know, you play enough of them then you’re gonna have a chance to upset somebody.”

One of the keys to playing well is shutting down the Fighting Irish’s explosive pro-style offense.

Most notably, their offensive depth is what makes them dangerous, USF defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said.

“There’s weapons everywhere,” he said. “Would you have been surprised if they didn’t trot out a guy, probably a couple on the bench that are just waiting for their chance?”

Notre Dame is led by senior quarterback Ian Book, who in Saturday’s 27-13 win over Duke, threw for 263 yards and went 19-of-31. Aside from his veteran leadership, Book’s quarterback IQ stands out.

“He’s kind of seen it all,” Spencer said. “He knows how to read rotation, he knows where to go with the ball.”

Book also has the composure to handle a collapsing pocket too, according to Spencer.

“Being able to move around is one thing, but being able to throw accurately on the run … something a lot of guys can’t do,” Spencer said.

Around Book is a collection of “tools in the toolbox,” as Spencer put it.

Against Duke, the Fighting Irish had six ball carriers who ran for a combined 178 rushing yards.

Sophomore running back Kyren Williams ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns. In total, he had 205 all-purpose yards, accounting for over 46 percent of Notre Dame’s offense.

Williams, in one game, nearly quadrupled his all-purpose yardage from last season (29), which speaks to the quality of the Fighting Irish’s depth and player development.

The key to preparing for Notre Dame’s depth is to focus on making sure USF’s defense does what it’s supposed to do, according to Spencer.

“Phenomenal job in recruiting and offensive depth up there, but it’s not so much of ‘who that is,’ but what we do, be where we’re supposed to be and get the right leverage and have the right read and do your job,” Spencer said.

The Bulls have defensive tools of their own.

Junior linebacker Antonio Grier leads the team with 10 total tackles and a sack for a loss of 4 yards. Defensive tackle Thad Mangum is close behind Grier with nine tackles, with one for a loss of two yards.

Developing USF’s defensive depth to meet the challenge of the Fighting Irish’s offensive has been somewhat of a secondary goal to locking down defensive starters, but Scott expects more opportunities for the defense to rotate on Saturday.

“Defense is a really tough position to rotate,” Scott said. “I do feel like we have a lot of unknowns probably in our two deep and three deep on the defensive side of the ball. But I think Glenn really wanted that first group to play a lot more together because it was kind of the first game and especially what they were doing, all you had to have was one guy going the wrong way and it’s a touchdown the other way, so I do feel that we’ll get an opportunity to play more guys.”

Matching Notre Dame’s tools with USF equivalents could be the key to coming away with an upset — to make a dream a reality.

“[It’s] 2020, it’s a different year,” Scott said. “You never know what happens any time you get out there on the field, but there’s no doubt this’ll be as big a challenge as we’ve faced in a long time.”

For USF to have a chance, the team will have to be the best it’s been in a while.

“We don’t have to play perfect to win this game Saturday, but we’re gonna have to play very, very well,” Scott said.

The Bulls and Fighting Irish kick off Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium at 2:30 p.m. The game will be televised on USA Network and broadcast on WDAE-AM 620 and iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.