SOUTH BEND - Remove the weather situations from the equation. Forget the distractions concerning Skip Holtz’s return to Notre Dame.
South Florida’s 23-20 win over the Irish was Tulsa revisited, sans Notre Dame’s very real chance to win at the end.
The Irish football program, riding the momentum of four wins to end last season, took some major steps backward Saturday.
This was a Notre Dame team that was supposed to have outgrown the goofs it committed Saturday. The Irish weren’t supposed to be so fragile and vulnerable. Notre Dame doubled South Florida’s offensive production, 508 yards to 254 - but still came up empty.
Five turnovers, three in the red zone. Dayne Crist’s tenure as “the man” under center lasted all of 30 minutes. Hello, Tommy Rees. Good-bye, confidence.
David Ruffer, college football’s most accurate kicker last season, misfired wide left from 30 yards in the third quarter. Big points, as it turned out.
Late hit and pass interference penalties on corner Gary Gray during the Bulls’ last scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Big yards.
“This was an accumulation of mistake after mistake after mistake,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “It wasn’t just one play. It was one mistake after the other.”
A lot of respect was flushed with the loss. Heck, NBC, Notre Dame’s own television network, even gave up on the Irish. After the second stadium evacuation and storm delay, NBC shifted the final 4 minutes and 21 seconds to its obscure subsidiary, Versus, so it could show ... a football movie - “Game Time: Tackling the Past.”
Probably had a better ending for Irish fans, anyway.
For those Notre Dame fans who don’t get the network, normally reserved for hunting and fishing adventures, they didn’t miss much. Rees managed to get a touchdown pass to Michael Floyd, but that last-ditch try for an onside kick failed.
Notre Dame’s going to have its share of problems tackling the future.
Now what happens? How is Notre Dame supposed to be able to travel to the Big House next Saturday night and beat Michigan?
Quarterback controversy? Rees threw for 296 yards (24 of 32), but was intercepted twice - once inside the South Florida 5. While the sophomore lacked consistency, Crist, a senior, was worse (7 of 15, 95 yards), tossing a pick in the end zone from the Bulls’ 10.
A preseason worth of building toward the anointing of Crist as the starter was ruled null and void before the first lightning bolt flashed. Lots of rhetoric. Little production. Too many miscues.
How can an Irish offense look like a hot knife through butter for its first six snaps - traveling 78 yards - then curl up and die after Jonas Gray’s fumble is returned 96 yards for a touchdown by Kayvon Webster?
It’s called mental toughness.
That problem was supposed to have been solved during the win streak last season. The swagger was supposed to have returned. The BCS was supposed to have been in sight, if not a realistic goal.
One clunker has changed all that.
“We’ve been down this road before,” said Kelly, who probably still has the map handy in his glove compartment.
It’s a rocky thoroughfare. Lots of twists and turns. Always under construction.
“The disappointing thing is that we thought going into a year where we had some experience, that we wouldn’t have to go through this,” Kelly said. “But, it looks like we’re going to have to make sure our players are understanding what it takes to win football games.”
Ugh. Back to square one.
That was the process last season. Lessons like Michigan, Michigan State and Tulsa were supposed to have been the fodder for the turnaround. All that was wasted. Retention doesn’t seem to be the program’s strong suit.
Next week’s a lot about survival now.