Notre Dame vs. South Florida Preview: Irish Seek Their Inner Matador

BJ Daniels last game was a very good one.

USF (+10) at Notre Dame

We’ve waited a long time for this game to come.

The 2011 season begins this weekend for Notre Dame as the South Florida Bulls make their first ever trip to South Bend, Indiana.

Former Irish player Skip Holtz, the son of legendary Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, makes his return to South Bend as well in his first game back as a head coach.

This will mark the seventh time over the past 10 years that the Fighting Irish will open up the season against a BCS opponent. What’s more, many feel that South Florida is the toughest opening game Notre Dame will have faced in quite some time.

Let’s break down this home opening contest and see if the Irish will be able to seek their inner matador and defeat the USF Bulls.

There are a lot of Irish fans really nervous about this game. The cliff notes version for those worries is this:

South Florida has been a solid BCS team for many years now. They have a lot of Florida athleticism and speed on their roster. Their defense is usually very stout. Their offense is led by one of the more athletic quarterbacks in the country and might take off if he fixes his inconsistency. They are being picked as one of the top teams in the Big East in 2011, and they are led by a good coach with an enviable lineage and solid resume.

Now, let's dig deeper.

Let's take a look at the positives and negatives with USF and see if we can understand why some are so worried, while others might be feeling good about this matchup.

Coaching

First off, let me say that I think Holtz is a good coach, but I think we should hold off on calling him a great coach at this point. He’s a quality coach, but it’s not like Bob Stoops is walking into Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday.

He did a quality job at UConn, and a nice program building effort at East Carolina before coming to South Florida last year. Holtz is a good coach for certain, but there’s still a lot more to be proven in order to pronounce him the next great young head coach (which many Irish fans are more than willing to do---it’s in the name baby).

Skip Holtz will look to pull a victory from his Alma Mater.

Nevertheless, any quality coach should be respected, especially one that has an entire offseason to prepare.

So while Holtz isn't Stoops, he isn't Danny Hope either.

Experience

I don’t mean experience in terms of players returning and upperclassmen (that's a huge advantage for Notre Dame), but rather the fact that USF has ventured outside their Big East bubble in the recent past and has a familiarity with playing big games outside their comfort zone.

Only last year, the Bulls went into the Swamp and were able to play Florida tough for a while.

Also, since 2007 USF is 6-2 versus BCS opponents out of conference.

That includes wins over Clemson, Florida State, Kansas, NC State, Auburn, and North Carolina---quite impressive.

Even though the Bulls didn’t play very well on the road last year, they are not going to be the type of team that will be intimidated by the atmosphere in South Bend. Although all of those above wins are two years old or longer, and one coach ago, it is still disconcerting for Irish fans that the Bulls have achieved them.

Defense

USF’s calling card is most definitely defense, and it has been their strong suit in recent years.

In 2010, the Bulls finished nationally in the rankings as follows:

  • 22nd in scoring defense.
  • 23rd in rushing defense.
  • 24th in passing defense.
  • 17th in total defense.

We’ll take a closer look at the defense shortly, but those are pretty imposing numbers.

Whenever someone talks about the USF defense they automatically bring up their speed and athleticism. This is another worry for Irish fans---that Notre Dame will struggle to move the ball against that Florida talent and thus, keep this a very close game.

What's more, in comparing both teams' common opponents last year (Pitt & Miami) the Bulls gave up 159 fewer yards than the Irish, although it is worth noting that the Miami game was a blowout for Notre Dame, the Hurricanes got a large portion of their yards against backups, and the Irish did give up 3 fewer points against both teams in comparison to USF.

Mobile Quarterback

Yes, you can imagine any quarterback with a decent set of wheels is going to scare Irish fans, and B.J. Daniels is just that, and maybe more.

Through two seasons Daniels has racked up 1,031 yards on the ground to go along with 14 touchdowns. Last year against Florida while the Bulls only racked up 86 passing yards, Daniels was able to rush for 107 yards on 17 carries.

He was slowed down a little bit last year with an injury and bottled up more in Skip Holtz’ new offense, but Daniels remains a very reliable threat on the ground.

He is the type of athlete who can extend plays and keep drives going with his feet, and you can bet he will be asked to run the ball more to beat Notre Dame in the first game of the season just like he was last year to compete with Florida (41.3% of Daniels rushing yards last season came in the game against Florida---he never ran for more than 35 yards in any other contest).

If Daniels can play like he did in USF's recent bowl game against Clemson, this Bulls offense might take the next step from poor to average. And if that step is taken against Notre Dame you might get an upset if the Bulls defense remains stout.

What about the other side of the coin with USF?

Offense

The Bulls were getting used to a new offense last year in Holtz’ first season at South Florida, and the results were not pretty. At the end of 2010, they were ranked 105th nationally in total offense.

The fact that South Florida didn't play a single ranked team last year proves just how awful their offense really was.

YPP Given Up & Opponent Total Offense Ranking (Notre Dame)

YARDS PER PLAY TEAM RANK S&P RANK
7.1 Navy 37 40
6.6 Michigan 8 5
6.2 Miami 31 28
6.2 Michigan State 53 21
5.5 Tulsa 5 49
5.5 Pittsburgh 73 16
5.3 Stanford 14 2
4.6 Western Michigan 34 80
4.4 Purdue 104 110
3.9 Boston College 109 100
3.8 Utah 52 31
3.8 Southern Cal 26 26
3.4 Army 93 83
N/A N/A 49.1 45.4

YPP Given Up & Opponent Total Offense Ranking (South Florida)

YARDS PER PLAY TEAM RANK S&P RANK
6.6 Cincinnati 32 22
6.4 Florida 83 41
5.4 Pittsburgh 73 16
4.8 Miami 31 28
4.7 Syracuse 97 89
4.7 West Virginia 67 60
4.6 Western Kentucky 98 111
4.5 Rutgers 114 101
4.4 Clemson 88 63
4.4 Stony Brook N/A N/A
4.1 Louisville 71 42
3.5 Connecticut 95 75
3.3 Florida Atlantic 107 106
N/A N/A 79.6 62.8

What the tables above show is that on average, Notre Dame played an above average defense in 2010, while South Florida played a below average one.

Some more stats to take away from these tables:

  • Notre Dame played 7 top 50 offenses, while USF played just two.
  • S&P Adjusted (College Football Outsiders), Notre Dame played 9 top 50 offenses, while USF played only five.
  • Notre Dame played 3 top 15 offenses, and 2 top 5 offenses (S&P adjusted), while USF didn't play a single offense in the top 15.

This year the Bulls can expect some improved play from a healthy B.J. Daniels and take a step forward with more familiarity in the system, however the entire offense as a whole is not very threatening.

Which B.J. Daniels is going to show up on Saturday?

Despite adding a flashy transfer to their running back corps, the ground game still seems rather average, while the receiving corps is about as non-descript as you’re going to find from a quality BCS team (although they are speedy and would benefit from improved passing from Daniels). What’s more, the Bulls have to replace three starters on their offensive line and may have problems protecting Daniels.

So while Daniels is a wildcard and someone who could conceivably take over a game, the reality is that USF is probably going to be the 10th best offense Notre Dame will face in 2011---better than only Purdue and WakeForest.

YPP Earned & Opponent Total Defense Ranking (Notre Dame)

YARDS PER PLAY TEAM RANK S&P RANK
7.0 Michigan 110 86
7.0 Western Michigan 73 88
6.4 Army 28 87
5.8 Purdue 62 43
5.7 Michigan State 43 39
5.7 Tulsa 110 71
5.3 Navy 75 68
5.2 Utah 27 17
5.2 Stanford 21 21
5.2 Miami 22 9
4.7 Pittsburgh 8 41
4.5 Southern Cal 83 46
4.1 Boston College 13 12
N/A N/A 51.9 48.3

YPP Earned & Opponent Total Defense Ranking (South Florida)

YARDS PER PLAY TEAM RANK S&P RANK
8.3 Stony Brook N/A N/A
7.3 Cincinnati 63 100
5.3 Rutgers 65 80
5.3 Florida 9 27
5.1 Western Kentucky 67 110
4.9 Florida Atlantic 85 91
4.6 Connecticut 58 60
4.5 Louisville 14 51
4.3 Pittsburgh 8 41
4.3 Clemson 19 14
4.0 Miami 22 9
3.7 Syracuse 7 58
3.3 West Virginia 3 5
N/A N/A 35.0 53.8

What the tables above show is that although using normal total yardage metrics it may appear that USF played against tougher defenses, the adjusted S&P rankings show Notre Dame actually played stiffer competition on defense. This does not even account for the Bulls' game against FCS Stony Brook either.

Basically, the defenses in the Big East looked good because the offenses in the league were so terrible. Unless you really want to believe that Syracuse had a top ten defense last year.

Some more stats to take away from these tables:

  • Notre Dame averaged 5.0 yards-per-game or better in 10 out of their 13 games, compared to South Florida only doing so in 5 games (once again including a FCS opponent).
  • Notre Dame played 4 top 25 defenses (S&P), while USF played three.
  • With common opponents (Miami & Pitt), the Irish averaged 4.95 YPP in comparison to the Bull's 4.15.

Returning Starters

USF returns a lot of lettermen from 2010, but has to replace 11 starters, including some very good talent on defense as well as their leading rusher and receiver.

Worse yet, the Bulls lost quite a deal of talent on both lines and that’s not good given the fact that Notre Dame looks to be very strong up front on offense and defense.

Conventional wisdom says that losing that many starters means likely taking a step back, or if the coaching is good enough possibly treading water. Even with many lettermen coming back, it will be difficult for the Bulls to be much better than they were in 2010.

Some Struggles on the Road & in Conference

Despite playing well historically outside their conference, USF was not a great road team in 2010. They did finish the season 3-2 away from home (including their bowl win over Clemson) but the Bulls were -24 in points and a dismal -534 in yards in those five non-home games.

Further, although USF is touted as a quality program they have been a rather average team in a below-average conference for a few years now.

Three straight 8-5 seasons may make USF look pretty good on the surface, but since 2008 the Bulls are merely 8-13 in Big East play and have not had a winning season in conference since 2007 when they went 4-3.

South Florida is also 2-7 since 2005 versus teams that went on to win 10+ games. They have not beaten a 10-win team since 2007 when they upset West Virginia (their other win is also West Virginia from 2006).

That means South Florida will be heading into their fourth season without a truly big and meaningful victory.

What to Watch Out For

Offense:

Notre Dame may want to pound the ball on the ground early and get Crist settled in and comfortable in his second career opening day start, but USF was pretty decent at stopping the run last year.

On the other hand, USF did not play many good quarterbacks or passing offenses last year and the two best (Calloros-Cincinnati & Smith-West Virginia) were able to put up 731 yards with 5 TD and 1 INT on 58 of 92 (63%) attempts.

USF has a big space eater at defensive tackle in Cory Grissom (6'2" 317), but the other three linemen average just under 262 pounds. The linebackers too are on the smaller side averaging 6'1.5" and 229 pounds, so look for the Irish to run the ball right at DE Patrick Hampton (240 pounds) and SLB Curtis Weatherspoon (215 pounds).

Notre Dame should run early, but the Irish offense has enough weapons on both ground and air to be most effective sticking with a balanced gameplan. It will be key to score touchdowns when getting deep into Bulls territory---settling for field goals instead of putting six on the board is not what you want to do against an offensively challenged opponent.

Defense:

The goal will be to pressure QB Daniels, but also keep him contained on the ground. Daniels has a history of committing bad turnovers when under duress, but he will probably be developed enough as a junior to make the Irish pay through the air if he has time to throw.

I look for Notre Dame to play more conservatively to start the game, focus on shutting down the run, contain Daniels, and see how much pressure the front four can apply without blitzing too much. USF has speed at receiver so keeping them in front and limiting big pass plays will be very important.

I like the Bulls to struggle running the ball, and in turn start to rely on Daniels scrambling and throwing the ball more often. Daniels might run for 80+ yards by the end of the game, but it will be tough for him to pass for more than 200 yards and not turn the ball over or make a lot of bad decisions.

Special Teams:

Both teams have good kicking games, but Notre Dame needs consistently strong punting from Ben Turk.

The Irish will be looking to get some big plays in the return game from Theo Riddick, but the more important assignment will be to shut down USF's Lindsey Lamar, who was very quietly one of the best return men in the country last year. Lamar is tiny (5'9" 168) but he might be the Bulls most explosive player---so watch out for him as a receiver too.

If the Irish punting game isn't atrocious, they should be able to keep USF in bad field position all day long.

PREDICTION

South Florida is a tough season opening game, there should be no illusions about that fact.

The Bulls are a quality team, but if this game was later in the season there would be far less angst among the Notre Dame faithful. As it is, the Irish have more talent and better coaching across the board so they should be prepared to take care of business at home.

During the offseason there was a lot of concern that Notre Dame might not take USF seriously, and that the Bulls were a very underrated team who could pull off the upset.

Today, I think they are one of those teams that have become overrated for being too underrated---just a bit too much hype for a program that consistently struggles in the Big East and isn't returning many starters. Our fans have been talking up USF since the spring, but I am here to level off those concerns.

Moreover, I don’t think their defense is as good as some people suggest and certainly not one of the top 25 units in the country as their numbers from 2010 would lead you to believe. They have a few playmakers and some speed, but on a national level this defense is much closer to average than it is dominant.

USF Players on Phil Steele All-Big East Teams

1st Team: KR Lindsey Lamar

2nd Team: RB Darrell Scott, OG Jeremiah Warren, OG Chaz Hine, LB DeDe Lattimore, CB Quentin Washington, PR Terrence Mitchell

3rd Team: DE Ryne Giddins, LB Sam Barrington, CB Curtis Weatherspoon, S Jon Lejiste

4th Team: QB B.J. Daniels, RB Demetris Murray, WR Stanley Griffin, C Kevin McCaskill, OT Mark Popek, DT Cory Grissom, P Justin Brockhaus, Kann

USF might improve in the second year under Holtz, and they might benefit from a slightly improved offense, but the fact remains that their team is not swimming in a ton of top flight Big East talent. Even their lone skilled position player on Steele's second team (Colorado transfer Darrell Scott) is placed there mostly because of his recruiting hype. He was a major bust for the Buffaloes and hasn't exactly grabbed the starting spot for the Bulls either.

If USF was in the Big Ten, you'd see maybe three players on the all-conference teams and likely none on the first two teams.

This isn’t meant to disparage USF, because if Notre Dame doesn’t come to play they can and will lose this game. Still, if we can be real we can admit Notre Dame will face many more talented teams in 2011, and the Irish hold a significant talent advantage and should be well prepared after a great offseason.

South Florida has struggled in the mediocre Big East (never better than third in the conference, never less than 3 losses a season, and an average finish of 5th in the conference over the past 3 years---which is where they finished last year) meaning if they were in the Big Ten or Pac-12 they would likely be towards the basement of those leagues.

I’m of the mind that South Florida peaked a couple years ago (when they upset some bigger programs), they've been living off those achievements for a while, and also the fact that they have "Florida" in their name (Florida=scary speed). The Bulls have been trying to reload and take the next step as a program, but it just hasn’t happened yet.

That USF is being picked to win the Big East by some pundits probably has more to do with the competition in the conference and very little to do with this possibly being the best Bulls team ever---an important and obvious distinction that most preseason publications simply gloss over.

DeDe Lattimore leads a very solid linebacker corps for South Florida.

Last year, USF lost to Pittsburgh while Notre Dame beat the Panthers. The Bulls squeaked by Miami, while the Irish soundly defeated the Hurricanes.

In 2010, South Florida’s victories came against teams that finished a horrid 34-53 (.390) and that doesn’t include a victory over FCS Stony Brook. The Bulls also beat two FCS teams in 2009 as well.

7 of their 16 victories (44%) since 2009 have come against non-BCS teams.

Conversely, Notre Dame’s victories in 2010 came against teams that finished a very respectable 57-45 (.558).

Over the past two seasons, USF has beaten 5 teams that have won at least 7 games, with 4 of those teams winning exactly 7 contests. The lone outlier was a defeat of a 9-4 West Virginia team in 2009.

Just last year alone, Notre Dame beat 6 teams that won at least 7 games with 3 of those teams winning 8 or more games.


Even with South Florida’s good defense, Notre Dame should still have an advantage on that side of the ball, and a significant one at certain positions (Te'o, Harrison Smith, Darius Fleming, and Gary Gray, etc.)

On offense, the Bulls will have to get close to a career day out of B.J. Daniels and more importantly, protect the ball. With a mediocre receiving corps and questions along the offensive line, Daniels will also need a big game from the running backs in order to give him time to throw the ball down field and ease the Irish pass rush.

If the Notre Dame defense is as good as everyone thinks it will be, then USF is going to have a hard time moving the ball and putting points on the board. In other words, the Irish defense should be the biggest factor in an Irish victory.

Offensively, we know the talent is there for Notre Dame, but we’re still not sure exactly what kind of approach the team will take. The offense looked very sharp (even if it lacked explosiveness) in last year’s opener, but you can imagine there might be some bumps in the road against USF, whose defense, top to bottom, is better than Purdue's last year.

But with a star like Michael Floyd and other playmakers, Notre Dame has a considerable edge on offense in comparison to South Florida. The Fighting Irish should keep USF in check, and eventually Dayne Crist & Co. will break through on offense.

Even if South Florida does improve as Phil Steele and others are calling for (and have their best season EVER), I expect Notre Dame to be much improved as well. In short, the Irish talent should win out.

Much like Nevada in 2009, we've been talking up USF as a potential season opening upset, but I think the game is a little bit easier for Irish hearts than we're being led to believe, even if it isn't a sound beating like the Wolf Pack took a couple years ago.

Notre Dame will slowly stick spears into the Bulls, wear them down, and win their fourth straight season opener.

Notre Dame 30

USF 16

The Irish cover the spread.

*****DON'T FORGET TO STOP BY ON SATURDAY FOR OUR ONE FOOT DOWN OPEN THREAD. WE WILL HAVE ONE EVERY NOTRE DAME GAMEDAY AND THIS WEEK I WILL BE AT THE CONTROLS DROPPING INSIGHT LIKE I'M INSIDE MIKE MAYOCK'S BRAIN. PLEASE JOIN ME WHILE YOU DRINK YOUR BEER.*****

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