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  • Bulls to Test Irish in Opener

    by John Vannie

    Notre Dame opens the 2011 football season amid a wave of optimism and high expectations in Brian Kelly’s second year as head coach. The Irish finished strong in 2010 with victories over Miami and arch rival USC, and return most of their key players. The visitors from South Florida are coached by Skip Holtz, who is also in his second season with the Bulls and is 80-55 in his career. The Bulls are coming off an 8-5 campaign and are widely regarded as the team to beat in the Big East Conference this year.

    Quarterback Dayne Crist has recovered from a serious knee injury last October to reclaim the starting job from sophomore Tommy Rees after an intense competition. Crist will target senior wide receiver Michael Floyd, who evoked a sigh of relief from Irish fans when he elected to return for his final season. The offensive line is a solid unit that came together in the second half of last season. Four experienced starters are joined by guard Chris Watt, who saw considerable action in 2010. Junior Cierre Wood remains the lead running back, while senior Jonas Gray will share some of the workload.

    While the offense is both experienced and talented, it is Notre Dame’s defense that has generated considerable enthusiasm. An exceptional group of freshmen will bolster the front seven to give the Irish a combination of size, speed and depth that has not been seen in South Bend in a very long time. Senior ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore are backed by freshmen Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch in the Irish 3-4 alignment, while junior Manti Te’o anchors the linebacking corps. Free safety Harrison Smith is back for his final season after a breakout campaign in 2011.

    South Florida boasts speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball, and the Bulls expect to be improved in Year 2 of the Holtz regime despite the loss of several linemen and offensive skill position players. They will rely heavily on talented quarterback B.J. Daniels, who will not have to learn a new offensive system for the first time in his college career. The defense is strong at linebacker and in the secondary, while nose tackle Cory Grissom anchors a four man front that will include three new starters.


    The Irish are expected to test the revamped South Florida defensive line by running the ball early and often. The battle between Grissom and Irish center Braxton Cave will be interesting to watch, but Notre Dame should be able to run right at ends Ryne Giddins (260 lbs) and Patrick Hampton (240 lbs). Other than Julius Forte, who is primarily a pass rush specialist, the Bulls do not have much depth up front to withstand a sustained ground attack. Giddins is a highly regarded prospect who will apply pressure on passing downs.

    Middle linebacker Sam Barrington and weak side veteran DeDe Lattimore are above average players, and a solid secondary returns cornerback Quenton Washington and both safeties. JaQuez Jenkins is a valuable reserve who can play either corner or safety and typically serves as the nickel back. South Florida is sure to focus on Floyd in the passing game, but Notre Dame has other options. Tight end Tyler Eifert is an emerging star with good downfield speed, while wide receivers Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones are looking to stay healthy and realize their potential.

    Crist will probably refrain from running the ball on designed plays, but Kelly has the option of inserting a dual threat quarterback into the game for a change of pace. Sophomore Andrew Hendrix impressed in the spring while freshman Everett Golson is pure lightning in a bottle. It will be interesting to see if either is called upon in this contest and throughout the season. Hendrix displayed a powerful style while Golson is freakishly elusive, but both can throw the ball as well as run it.

    The plan for Notre Dame should be to keep the Bulls’ defense off balance while steadily wearing them down. The Irish may elect to employ the no-huddle variant or change quarterbacks for a series or two, but an emphasis on the run should pay dividends as the game moves into the second half. Notre Dame’s improved defense should afford Kelly plenty of options in his play calling without the need to take undue risks.


    The Bulls were primarily a running team in 2010, as evidenced by their 60/40 split between the run and the pass. Demetrius Murray is listed as the starting tailback, but Holtz has imported Darrell Scott, a highly regarded transfer from Colorado, to share the load. Daniels was the team’s third leading rusher last season and will run by design as well as under duress. The offensive line is set on the left side with tackle Mark Popek and center Chaz Hine leading the way, but Danous Estenor and Quinterrius Eatmon are new starters on the right.

    Notre Dame’s talent and depth up front should neutralize a more traditional ground game, so scenes like this one probably won’t occur for the Bulls.


     The challenge will be to contain Daniels. The Irish have added speed at linebacker with new starters Prince Shembo and Dan Fox joining Te’o and veteran Darius Fleming. Backups Steve Filer, Danny Spond and Carlo Calabrese can fill in without losing a beat.

    When Daniels drops back to pass, his only proven receiver is 6’3” Evan Landi. Other options include Joel Miller and Terrence Mitchell, who are quick enough to be dangerous in the open field. The Bulls may also employ wideouts A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin, who are returning from major injuries that kept them on the sideline all last season. Love is a sixth year senior who has overcome a pair of torn ACLs during his career. The tight end position in this offense is typically employed as a blocker, as the entire group combined for only seven receptions last season.

    Daniels was a 58% passer in 2010 and was often inconsistent. Despite the presence of speed in the Bull’s lineup, the number of new personnel on offense makes it unlikely that Holtz’ passing game will be functioning smoothly at this stage of the season. Notre Dame’s corners are not exceptionally fast, but Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are capable veterans who can cover and tackle. The Irish have numerous pass rushers to keep pressure on Daniels, and this may lead to turnovers. Much depends on the ability of Daniels to create positive plays, but Notre Dame should be prepared if Golson has been running the scout team in practice all week.


    The Irish have the athletes to excel in kick and punt coverage this season, but the team is still searching for a dynamic return man. Riddick will be featured in this role with Bennett Jackson or possibly a freshman getting a chance. Former walk-on David Ruffer returns as the place kicker following an extraordinary 2010 season and junior Ben Turk continues as the punter. Kickoffs will be handled by freshman Kyle Brindza, whose powerful leg is evident when he manages to hit the ball solidly.

    South Florida has a dangerous return man in Lindsay Lamar, who was named the Big East Special Teams Player of the Year last season.  While the Bulls’ offense is not likely to march up and down the field against the Irish, Lamar provides big play potential. Reliable place kicker Maikon Bonani was 17 for 21 on field goals last year with a long of 47 yards, and Chris Veron beat out incumbent Justin Brockhaus-Kann for the punting job.


    Notre Dame’s depth and experience along each line appears to be a significant advantage. The Irish have proven back-ups in all areas except wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback, while South Florida is still struggling to find an answer if any starter goes down. Such a comparison on paper is less predictive in an opening game where injuries and fatigue are not factors, so the Bulls can pull off an upset if the Irish are sloppy on offense and Daniels makes big plays when it matters most.

    While Daniels must play exceptionally well for the Bulls to win, the key for Notre Dame is to shift pressure away from Crist. If the defense and running game operate as expected, Crist can manage the Irish offense without the weight of the world on his shoulders. Crist will once again play in a live game for the first time since the previous October, but the familiar faces among his supporting cast should help ease any anxiety.

    Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:

    Will Crist be poised or jittery in the pocket?

    Can the Bulls run the ball against the Irish?

    Will Kelly mix up the tempo or alternate quarterbacks?

    Can the Irish contain Lamar on special teams?

    Will Notre Dame’s defensive pressure force Daniels into mistakes?

    How good are the new players in the Irish defensive rotation?

    Will the Irish offensive line dominate or struggle in the running game?


    South Florida is a quality opponent with a fair amount of ability and toughness. Their style would be more problematic for recent Notre Dame teams that favored finesse and scheme over physicality, and also lacked the defensive speed to contain the edge. Those deficiencies should not be evident in this year’s Irish, who appear to have no major weaknesses. Expect Notre Dame to pull away after a tight first half and a few anxious moments later on, but a blowout victory does not seem likely.


    30 Responses to “Bulls to Test Irish in Opener”

    1. irishhawk50 says:

      I expect a big game from ND. I have never been a Crist fan. He always had that deer in the headlight look, but I have seen young players make the leap. Kelly has faith in his progress and I have faith in Kelly. He seems to exude confidence about this year’s team. I expect the Irish to win by 3 TD’s.

    2. Though I agree Blanton doesn’t have the speed of the top-end players, GG has top flight speed at corner. He was the best DB on the team last year and potential to be a top CB in the nation this year.

    3. I predicted you would predict 30-17, so wasn’t too far off. USF is a well-coached squad with nothing to lose. I don’t think this will be a Nevada repeat – let’s just hope it isn’t an SDSU. I will be happy if this easy, and not surprised if it isn’t.

    4. Tom Burke says:

      Kick the football Charlie Brown. I really hope Kelly and boys are the real deal. I don’t want the deceptive teams of 00′, 02′, 05′ and 06′ Kellys leadership during the 3 straight sept loses, the Navy -Tulsa debacle and the horrible, disturbing tragedy of Declan Sullivan, shows this guy knows what he is doing. I got a familiar feeling brewing, like when I was a young kid, 87′ – 94′. Lucy! Keep your damn finger on that football!

    5. I am juiced, and I think Kelly and the team are as well. Just remember game 1 in 2005. How together and polished the Irish looked right out of the gate. It never faded as we had two losses by less than 3 points that year and then the 14 point rip job in against the mostly illegal tOSU. That was the best team we had since Lou’s departure and I think this team will come out looking smooth from the start and only build on that.

      My biggest concern is how we will get screwed this year. You kow like the MSU game, the multiple clock errors at the end of the half at last years USC game and numerous other phantom calls against ND that have robbed us over the years (rocket kick return against colorado, Tibby INT that was overturned, it goes on and on and on). I don’t think it is a conspiracy, but lets just say it has been piling on by the officials. We have been weak and they have joined the haters in trouncing us when we are down. I sense the tied is turning and soon we will be such a talented and well executing and winning team they will not be able to heap these crap calls on us as often. Trust me it will still happen we just have to play above it. Instant replay has not been kind to us either nor has overtime.

      ND should be leading the charge to centralise all NCAA officials and remove them from conference affiliation. This is why we get screwed, because conference officials have a ‘conflict of interest’ situation where they are going to be biased to the schools in their confrence by default (after all that is who is paying them). It balances out more in play with affiliated teams, but we as the lone real independent super power are getting shafted in the current system. Tell me how I am wrong and you have not been wathcing ND football since the creation of the BCS!

    6. What gives with the 16 points? Three field goals? Two TDs and two two-point conversions? A safety??

      For the record, the prediction rings true to me, though I expect Crist to be pretty tight for this game (your first question to be answered) and liable to misfire on his short passes. Let’s hope the anticipated running game predominance isn’t wishful thinking.

    7. Scranton Dave says:

      I agree with CJW. The officiating has been awful over the years. The 2009 Michigan game is the worst officiated College Football game I have ever seen, and there were multiple errors that helped Michigan St beat us last year, including Michigan St not getting the play off in time on the fake field goal that won the game.

      Aside from that, I’m very excited about this Irish team! There are no weaknesses and we are stronger in the trenches than we have been since the Holtz days. Unlike some posters, I believe in Crist and I think he makes a great leap forward this year, and if he does, I think 10-2 is the floor.

      Go Irish!!

    8. It is a nice change to head into a season in which the biggest question found in the comments section of this page is, “what calls might screw us this year?” 🙂

    9. Irish 38-13. If Notre Dame is ranked 16 or higher by others and the feeling is that this program is “back”, then this cannot be a close game. No disrespect to South Florida and Coach Holtz, but this is still South Florida. In my opinion, close game and you can chalk up the next two games in the L column… and then we are back where we were the previous years and it becomes… the same old story.

      • Do you know South Florida has beaten teams like Miami and Florida State in recent years with many of the same kids (like B.J. Daniels) who will be playing in ND Stadium Saturday? I hope I am wrong, but I am getting a bad feeling about this one. This will be close all the way. But close win or not, I don’t think it will have any bearing on the Michigan and Michigan State games. However, a loss would be a disaster and allow Kirk Herbstreit and all his buddies at ESPN ample ammunition to bash the Irish even more.

    10. Scranton Dave says:

      I disagree with what TC says. South Florida is a talented team

    11. I feel ND might actually use their speed against these guys more than anything. The defense is a lot faster and bigger, they are going to be flying all over and will not be run on by anyone all season. Everyone is going to struggle scoring on these guys. However, the speed might actually be more on the offensive side. Floyd might be the slowest guy on the team outside of the OL and QB, and that really depends on the QB playing. Wood, Riddick, Jones, and Eifert are all speed mismatches. I would expect the ND offense to be a true spread this year. Short passes in space, lot of zone read runs, pitches in space, misdirections, it will be fun to watch.

    12. I like all the enthusiasm on the message board but let’s remember, the Irish are still in the building phase of creating a solid program. All of us want to see a BCS game in year two, but those are the same expectations with the last two head coaches and look where we are now. Kelley is a much different coach than the last three Notre Dame has employed, that is why I wont hit the panic button if the Irish barely escape the USF game and split between Michigan and Mich St. This wont happen over night. There are questions on the offensive side of the ball and tell me if I’m wrong, but Theo Riddick is still a major project as a reciever. Bottom line is, only Brian Kelly knows how good this team is. I’m still on the fence, and there is no bigger Irish fan than I.

      Side note: Lee Becton could cut on a dime.

    13. Sounds like Daniels is going to provide ND a nice warm-up for Denard Robinson in the Big House. ND BSC Bound Baby!!!!!!!

    14. Good call, TC. Even if ND doesn’t put up huge points, what I want to see is control of the lines and a solid, confident win.

      As for Crist, I’m going to side with the believers. Why? Well, mostly b/c I’m pulling it out of my butt; however, there are three more solid reasons:
      1. He’s had a year to learn Kelly’s offense and Kelly has been very high on his leadership in recent pressers. You can’t lead w/o confidence, and that tells me he will know what he’s doing out there and will not panic. Whether he makes the plays or not remains to be seen, but I don’t think he’ll get flustered.
      2. He’s had Rees (plus the other two kids) pushing him. A couple years back, Rock talked about the value of depth: Younger talent pushing the upperclassmen to keep their starting jobs. I expect that’s the case here.
      3. When an offensive play blows up, all eyes are on the QB, whether it’s really his fault or not. The rest of the squad has also (hopefully) learned their roles in BK’s scheme, which will mean fewer plays when DC is left holding the bag or throwing to no one. Better blocking and better routes make the QB look better. I always think of Troy Aikman: a very good QB who became an HOF’er b/c he played behind that monster Dallas line.

      On the officiating, I agree we’ve gotten some wicked bad calls in recent years. I suspect it’s b/c the refs get their paychecks from a particular conference and so even when they’re not calling a game for one of those teams, there’s an unconscious desire to be seen as a “conference kind of guy”. I’m no psychologist, but paychecks have a way of motivating people.

      Anyway, here’s to a great season!

      BTW: What’s the officiating crew for the UM and MSU games? Those are the ones that scare me.

    15. I know this if WAY off topic, but what does the apparent second (recent) round of consolidation hitting college football mean for ND?

    16. To me, the complaints about officiating are pretty much besides the point. I mean, if you want to talk about the clock in the 2005 game vs. SC, okay. That was a season that could have turned out to be a seriously special one if the outcome of that game were different. But in subsequent years, it’s not the bad calls standing between us and success. Yes, there have been blown calls that went against us, but I don’t think this happens any more frequently to ND than to other teams. Just my opinion. Complaining about officiating makes me feel like a sore loser.

    17. Don in LA says:


      Stop whining. If we play real football we win. Complaining about the officials is for losers.

    18. ND will put Daniels on his back enough to make him throw a couple pics. Crist will be poised and Wood will rush for over 100 yards. Irish win 38-10.

      Then its time for some sweet revenge in the little house. Go Irish!

    19. just read that ND will be wearing helmets with Gigantic Shamrocks on them for the Michicant game….LAME

    20. Only BK actually knows how fast and quick these 300#ers are and I hope he is being truthful. If not,the smaller,quicker opposing linemen will make them look like “mud-mollies”(Tennessee quote)

    21. Irish win 30-20.

    22. I know that I have and I think that we ALL have been waiting for that one game in which it all seems to come together and we can say that Notre Dame is BACK. Beating USC last year was a BIG step, but not that one ‘statement’ game that I’m referring to. Beating USF is a good start, but USF, no disrespect intended, is NOT MSU or UM. These traditional opponents are BIG time and we need to BEAT them – thoroughly and decisively – on THEIR turf and on ours.
      Football is a game of physical domination and it is won in the trenches – I think we’ve come back to that. Just knock the guy down in front of you wearing the different colored uniform and the rest will take care of itself.

      Coach Kelly’s career pattern shows a huge improvement between the 1st year and the 2nd year in a program – he has gotten to know the team and they have gotten to know him.

      I think he too is looking for that signature game, that one play, where it all comes together, and I fervently believe that we (they) are getting REAL close to that.

      All of you who will be at the game – I almost envy you, but not quite. I’ll have a 6-pack and some goodies here and will be cheering along with you.

      Good luck with the traffic.

    23. South Florida is a worthy opponent but not a formidable one. I don’t expect a fancy win but I do expect ND to win the game and build on the progress leading up to Michigan.

      If ND manages to lose then it’s just same ol’, same ol’ again. I do, however, feel more optimistic about the season then I have in a very long time.

    24. Theo Riddick will be the succesor of the type of players represented by Tim Brown and Rocket Ismail.

    25. One of the worst half’s of football I have seen from a ND offense. Very disappointed. I have no confidence in Crist. I would love to see Rees start the second half if it ever happens.

    26. Does Kelly have a buy out? Can we hire Skip Holtz? This is an atrocious performance. We stink. I am sick of this.

    27. It looks like the bulls are doing more than merely testing the Irish. They are taking them out behind the woodshed.

      This ND team is not BCS timbre and we could be staring at a winless September.

    28. I agree Dave88. Sadly, I now measure my lifetime in terms of how many more ND football seasons I will have to endure before I greet (hopefully) St. Peter at the Pearly Gate!