Updated: September 3, 2011 10:32PM
To call it the perfect storm is not a reference to the lightning flashing overhead, the first forced evacuations of Notre Dame Stadium in history or the two weather-related delays totalling two hours, 53 minutes that sent fans milling about concourses and seeking shelter in nearby campus buildings while awaiting the resumption of their worst-case scenario.
This was an unexpected, late-summer squall of gaffes that was never in Brian Kelly’s forecast. The Notre Dame coach has repeatedly said this was the most focused and prepared team he had ever coached, only to watch them make inexplicable mistakes all over the field during a 23-20 loss to the University of South Florida that drenched the optimism surrounding his 16th-ranked team after it won four straight to end last season.
Eight penalties, three interceptions, a fumble returned for a touchdown and a muffed punt helped make a winner out of Skip Holtz, the South Florida coach who played and coached for Notre Dame, and who’s famous father led the program to its last national championship. They also likely renewed the quarterback competition that was supposed to have ended when Kelly named Dayne Crist the starter.
Coach Brian Kelly said the competition between senior Dayne Crist and Rees during training camp was decided by the slimmest of margins but Rees left little doubt who was the better quarterback before throwing his second interception of the game on the first play following the second weather delay, ending Notre Dame’s chances of rallying for a come-from behind win.
Rees replaced ineffective senior Dayne Crist at halftime and led the Irish on all three of their scoring drives, completing 24 of 34 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a mudslide of mistakes, most of which were made not by inexperienced players but some of the most proven performers on the roster.
First it was senior Jonas Gray being stripped near the goal line after Notre Dame had marched efficiently downfield on the first series of the game. Kayvon Webster picked up the ball on one bounce and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown to silence the crowd.
Back-to-back facemask penalties on safety Harrison Smith, a team captain making his 35th career start, set up a short field goal to put the Bulls up 13-0 with 1:08 left in the first quarter.
Cierre Wood scampered into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown only to have it called back because of a holding penalty on Michael Floyd, who is one of the most decorated receivers in Notre Dame history. The drive ended with Crist, a senior who beat out sophomore Tommy Rees for the starting job, underthrew Theo Riddick in the end zone, allowing Kevekeyan Lattimore to intercept.
It didn’t stop there, as Riddick muffed a punt that set up USF’S final field goal. Crist later threw behind tight end Tyler Eifert on third down late in the half, resulting in coach Brian Kelly giving him a verbal lashing on the sideline that lasted several minutes before lifting him at halftime.
Receiver TJ Jones didn’t see a Rees pass thrown to him early in the fourth quarter, resulting in a second turnover inside the 5-yard line. Even David Ruffer, who made 22 of 23 field goals last season, missed a 30-yarder. Fifth-year senior Gary Gray was flagged for a personal foul and a pass interference in the end zone on South Florida’s game-clinching drive.BY NEIL HAYES