TAMPA — Jeff Scott’s message to his team is a simple one: go out and have fun against Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon.
The Bulls are 26-point underdogs against the Fighting Irish. Who cares? Make the most of the experience and have a good time in doing so.
“I want our guys to go out and play loose, play confident and play free because where we are as a program, we are playing with house money going into the game,” said Scott, during his Tuesday press conference.
The Bulls, who had a 27-6 season-opening win last Saturday against The Citadel, go from playing a Football Championship Subdivision program with a four-game schedule to playing a team that is expected to be in the College Football Playoff conversation throughout the season.
“I think our guys are excited about this challenge to see how we kind of stack up,” said Scott, who as co-offensive coordinator at Clemson coached against Notre Dame in the 2015 regular season and 2018 CFP semifinal, both victories. “This is definitely one of those opportunities to play one of the best teams in the country, a team that is favored to make the (CFP) this year.”
It is also a team that has won 19 straight at home, including last week’s season-opening 27-13 victory over Duke. The streak is the Irish’s third-longest at home since Notre Dame Stadium opened in 1930.
A major reason for Notre Dame’s success at home, or anywhere, is the work of defensive coordinator Clark Lea. In 27 games since Lea was elevated from linebackers coach the Irish have held 26 of 27 opponents to 30 points or less. A few of those games were against fellow national heavyweights.
“I believe they played 11 defensive linemen (against Duke) and you could not tell the difference between the first group and the third group,” said Scott, in praising Lea’s unit, especially its depth.
The Bulls piled up 302 yards on the ground against The Citadel. That will not happen against Notre Dame, so it is imperative they get the ball downfield against the Irish. That did not happen much, and it did not have to happen, against The Citadel.
While three quarterbacks — Jordan McCloud, Noah Johnson and Katravis Marsh — combined to complete 18-of-25 passes, the aerial attack yielded only 102 yards for a paltry 5.6 yards per completion.
The lack of three starting offensive linemen for undisclosed reasons, Donovan Jennings and Demetris Harris on the left side and center Brad Cecil — a list of unavailable players will be released prior to kickoff — certainly contributed to that, plus the fact there was no urgency to get down the field against The Citadel.
Notre Dame will be a different story.
“There is no doubt that we challenged our quarterbacks and wide receivers,” said Scott. “We are not going to beat Notre Dame by just handing the ball off. We are going to have to make competitive plays down the field with accurate throws, good releases, timing and spacing.”
Notre Dame’s offense picked up the pace as the game against the Blue Devils rolled along, finishing with 441 total yards and an average of 6.0 yards per play. Quarterback Ian Book, a Heisman candidate, was 19-of-31 for 263 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Running back Kyren Williams rushed for 112 yards and a pair of TDs on 19 carries.
The Bulls, though, cannot be concerned about who they are going against as much as taking care of their own business.
“We’re just going to do what we do on Saturday,” said lineback Antonio Grier, who against The Citadel had each of his team-leading 10 tackles by halftime. “We’re not going to worry about anybody else and we are going to play to the best of our abilities.”
The game will be broadcast on the USA Network at 2:30 ET.
The trip to South Bend will be a homecoming of sorts for offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. His father, Charlie Weis Sr., was the head coach of the Fighting Irish from 2005-09. Junior attended high school in South Bend and spent plenty of Saturdays on the sideline helping his father.
“A lot of special memories of South Bend and the Notre Dame community,” he said during his press conference Wednesday. “Definitely some special and fond memories. Overall, I have a lot of love for South Bend and a lot of love for Notre Dame. It will be really cool to go back home.”
The Bulls won the only previous meeting against Notre Dame. A 23-20 win in the 2011 season opener over the No. 16 Irish took place one day before the passing of former USF athletic director and Tampa Bay Buccaneers great Lee Roy Selmon.
As with Charlie Weis Jr. this weekend, the game was a homecoming for USF head coach Skip Holtz. His father, Lou, coached the Fighting Irish for 14 seasons, including their most recent national championship in 1988.
In a game that took more than six hours to complete thanks to a pair of lightning delays, the first weather delays in Notre Dame Stadium history, the Bulls forced five turnovers. The first was a fumble recovery by corner Kayvon Webster, who returned it 96 yards for a touchdown.
The Bulls, who yielded twice as many yards as they gained, 508-254, led 16-0 at the half. Notre Dame scored a touchdown with 21 seconds remaining in the game to account for the final score.
Receiver Lindsay Lamar, who went on to become an assistant under Willie Taggart and Charlie Strong and is now an assistant at Howard, recovered an onside kick to seal it.