SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame takes the field today against a team filled with familiar faces, but one that is still feeling its way through a new era.
After a 4-8 season in 2019 led to the dismissal of coach Charlie Strong and the installation of former Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott as the new head of the program, the Bulls are using today's matchup with the Irish as a chance to measure where they stand in Year 1 of Scott's tenure. Scott himself, whose offenses have beaten Notre Dame twice – once in 2015 and then again in the College Football Playoff at the Cotton Bowl in 2018 – freely admits that the Bulls are not supposed to win this game. He expects that Notre Dame will be the best team his players face during the regular season.
That doesn't mean the Irish can come out flat in this one and expect to coast to victory. In fact, one of the emphases for coach Brian Kelly when he addressed his team this week was a desire that they start strong. After getting outgained 151-7 by Duke in the first quarter in Week 1, the Irish are hoping to avoid a repeat this week and bury South Florida early before any thoughts of an upset can enter the Bulls' minds. It won't be easy to get off to a quick start because, much like Duke, the Irish don't have much tape on the Bulls with their current coaching staff. The tape from USF's matchup with The Citadel in Week 1 isn't particularly instructive since the FCS academy runs a triple-option offense and Scott and South Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. – son of the former Irish coach and one of the youngest FBS coordinators at just 27 years old – likely held some offensive packages in reserve. Notre Dame will have to adjust quickly to looks it has not seen before after taking about a quarter and a half to do so against the Blue Devils.
That's a task that will be more difficult than it would be otherwise because of an announcement the Irish made before the game: they have a list of inactives that includes several key starters. Among those out this week are safety Kyle Hamilton – still suffering from an ankle injury sustained in Week 1 – and cornerback TaRiq Bracy, taking two starters out of a secondary that wasn't particularly deep to begin with. Safeties Houston Griffith and KJ Wallace and cornerback Cam Hart will have to step up this week for the Irish. Also out are backup quarterback Brendon Clark, wide receiver Lawrence Keys III, running back Jahmir Smith and the top two "Buck" linebackers on the depth chart in Shayne Simon and Marist Liufau. That's four starters and three key backups the Irish will be missing this week, creating a wide variety of unknowns. Hamilton is the only one that had an apparent injury heading into the weekend, so it's possible the coronavirus played a role in some of the other inactive cases.
The good news for Notre Dame is that the weather is perfect, without a cloud in the sky. It couldn't be more different from the virtual monsoon that swept through South Bend in September 2011, the only other time these teams have met. That time, the Irish fell 23-20, turning the ball over five times in a game that took a Notre Dame Stadium-record 5 hours and 59 minutes because of two long weather delays. There won't be any concerns about rain today, so the Irish can focus on what they need to do between the lines.
The fact is that even with a much thinner roster than usual, Notre Dame has more than enough talent to take out the Bulls, but the Irish will have to remain focused against a team that is likely to come in and play with nothing to lose. Quarterback Ian Book must be better than he was in Week 1, showing an improved presence in the pocket, and it would help significantly if running back Kyren Williams repeated his performance against the Blue Devils, in which he became the first Notre Dame player since 1983 to run for 90 yards and post 90 yards receiving in the same game. This will be a more difficult test than the Irish originally anticipated and they'll need to show some championship mettle to meet it without some key players.