The Journal Gazette
Saturday, September 19, 2020 1:00 am

Kelly wants Irish to start fast

South Florida pays visit for just 2nd-ever meeting

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

The forecast is clear for today.

That's music to the ears of No. 7 Notre Dame, which in 2011 endured a nearly six-hour slog against South Florida that was twice delayed because of severe thunderstorms in the area. The Irish left that rain-drenched field as surprise losers, falling 23-20 as the Bulls forced five turnovers.

It was the only meeting ever between the teams, until today, when the rebuilding Bulls and championship-hungry Notre Dame meet at Notre Dame Stadium on what should be a much drier field than the one they braved nearly a decade ago. 

This will be the only nonconference game of the year for the Irish, a matchup that was agreed to just weeks before the season began, when it became clear that Notre Dame's planned meeting with Navy wouldn't work out.

Notre Dame plans to make a return trip to Tampa in the coming years with another Bulls trip to South Bend to follow.

The Irish are coming off a 27-13 season-opening win over Duke, while South Florida opened with a 27-6 win over The Citadel, a game in which the Bulls ran 39 times for 302 yards.

Coach Brian Kelly was in his second year at Notre Dame when the Irish met South Florida the first time.

Now in his 11th season, Kelly wants his team to get off to a better start today after being outgained by Duke 151-7 in the first quarter last week.

Kelly said there has been plenty of energy at practice throughout fall camp and up through the start of the season, and he wants to see that carry over into the game from the beginning this week, instead of Notre Dame taking time to get going.

“Our practices have been really good, very purposeful, guys have been locked in,” Kelly said. “Flipping from a practice mindset to a competition mindset is a big difference, so I'd like to get sharper there. ... We talk about four quarters of football for us is: get off to a good start, have an attention to detail, which wasn't great at times (against Duke).

“But the second half, which is about effort and enthusiasm, was outstanding. Then we finished strong. That's four quarters of football for Notre Dame, and that's always been our standard.

“We've got to clean up those first two quarters.”

One reason Kelly gave for why the Irish struggled early against Duke was that the Blue Devils put some new wrinkles into their game plan that Notre Dame had not seen on film. It took his team a few series to adjust.

A similar dynamic might play out this week as South Florida sports a new head coach in former Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott and a new offensive coordinator in Charlie Weis Jr., son of the former Irish coach. They'll undoubtedly throw some packages at the Irish that they held in reserve against The Citadel, an FCS squad, in Week 1.

The Irish likewise won't be able to glean much from the Bulls' Week 1 defensive tape, since The Citadel runs a triple-option offense.

South Florida's defense will likely look much different when facing the pro-style offense Notre Dame employs. 

“We've got to be able to shift just like we did against Duke, we have to be prepared to make adjustments,” Kelly said. “A lot of uncertainties going into the game, but we're preparing for a team that ran for over 300 yards, so obviously we've gotta be really good against the run and be able to adjust accordingly throughout the game.”

Notre Dame vs. South Florida

When: 2:30 p.m. today

Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend (tickets available only to Notre Dame students, faculty and staff)

Records: No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0), South Florida (1-0)

TV: USA Network

Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM

3 storylines

Notre Dame wide receiver depth: Already missing projected No. 1 receiver Kevin Austin Jr. - just emerging this week from a walking boot after suffering a broken foot in late July - the Irish got dealt another blow on the outside against Duke when Homestead graduate Ben Skowronek hurt his hamstring, knocking him out for this week's matchup against the Bulls. Couple that with Braden Lenzy's health issues - he'll play this week but might be less than 100% after a hamstring injury sidelined him against Duke - and Notre Dame is looking thin in the receiving corps. Enter redshirt sophomore Joe Wilkins Jr., who had the first four catches of his Irish career for 44 yards against the Blue Devils and will be expected to make an impact again against USF.

Larger secondary rotation: The Irish didn't try many different combinations in the secondary in Week 1, sticking mostly with Nick McCloud and TaRiq Bracy at corner and Kyle Hamilton and Shaun Crawford (plus D.J. Brown after Hamilton got hurt in the third quarter) at safety. With Hamilton dealing with an ankle injury and likely not 100% and coach Brian Kelly feeling that McCloud and Bracy got a little tired late in the Duke game from too many snaps, look for the Irish to work in some more depth in the defensive backfield. Among those who could see more time today are cornerbacks Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis and safeties Houston Griffith, Isaiah Pryor and K.J. Wallace.

Familiar faces: Notre Dame has seen a Jeff Scott-coached offense before - twice as a matter of fact. Scott was the Clemson co-offensive coordinator when the Tigers beat the Irish in 2015 and in the College Football Playoff at the Cotton Bowl in 2018. In addition, Scott's offensive coordinator at USF, Charlie Weis Jr., is the son of former Irish coach Charlie Weis, who led the program from 2005 to 2009 and compiled a 62-35 record with two BCS bowl appearances. His son, 27, was the offensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic for two years before taking the job at South Florida.

Prediction: No. 7 Notre Dame 35, South Florida 14

- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette

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