The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will play their first non-conference game in the program's 132-year history on Saturday afternoon when they host the USF Bulls at Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish are playing as a member of the ACC for the 2020 season, and are playing a 10-game conference schedule with the Bulls coming to town as the only non-conference opponent on the schedule for this season.
In other new beginnings, USF opened the Jeff Scott era with a dominant performance against The Citadel, limiting the FCS Bulldogs to a pair of field goals while tallying 302 rushing yards in a 27-6 win. The Bulls forced three turnovers last week and held The Citadel scoreless in the second half. Notre Dame started slow in its opener against Duke last week but found a rhythm in the final three quarters in an eventual 27-13 win.
Saturday will be just the second meeting all-time between the Bulls and Fighting Irish. In 2011, USF outlasted then-No. 16 Notre Dame 23-20 in a game that lasted five hours and 59 minutes, including nearly three hours of delays due to severe weather in the area. The Irish are scheduled to visit Tampa in the coming years, with the Bulls also slated to return to Notre Dame Stadium to conclude the three-game series.
USF at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: USA Network
Spread: Notre Dame -25.5
When USF Has the Ball
Quarterback Jordan McCloud started for the Bulls a season ago and held off transfer challengers Cade Fortin (North Carolina) and Noah Johnson (Alcorn State) during fall camp for the role this year. McCloud only threw for 68 yards and a touchdown in the season opener against The Citadel, though he was efficient in completing 11 of his 16 passes.
McCloud didn't do much to supply the offense, however, because the running game took control and never looked back. The Bulls ran for 302 yards (7.7 yards per carry) last week, with Johnny Ford leading the team with nine carries (71 yards) while Kelley Joiner Jr. totaled a team-high 87 yards and a touchdown on eight attempts. Johnson did see a bit of action in relief of McCloud, completing three of his four passes for 24 yards while adding 49 yards on the ground on seven carries. The 302-yard output is a welcome sign after USF finished 66th out of 130 FBS teams in 2019 with 161.3 rushing yards per game.
In holding Duke to just 13 points, Notre Dame's defense picked up right where it left off. In the two-plus seasons of defensive coordinator Clark Lea's tenure, Notre Dame has held all but one of its 27 opponents under 30 points. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah kicked off his senior season with nine tackles, a sack and a forced fumble while safety Shaun Crawford and defensive lineman Ade Ogundeji each recovered a fumble.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Quarterback Ian Book was far from perfect against Duke, completing 19 of his 31 passes for 263 yards with a touchdown and an interception, as well as 12 rushing yards on nine carries. The interception was his first since tossing two — out of six total for the season — against Duke last November, with the 12 yards on the ground his lowest since notching five against Bowling Green last October.
The most electric player on the field for the Irish last week, though, was running back Kyren Williams. Making his first career start, the redshirt freshman ran for 112 yards and a pair of touchdowns, adding 93 yards on a pair of receptions. Williams led all FBS players with 205 all-purpose yards and became the first Notre Dame player since at least 1996 to eclipse 90 yards both rushing and receiving. In addition to Williams, Book found tight ends Tommy Tremble and Michael Mayer for eight of his 19 completions. Each notched 38 yards receiving as Tremble grows into his starting role while Mayer — who wears No. 87 and is aptly nicknamed "Baby Gronk" both for his play and his jersey number — made his collegiate debut. The continued emergence of that pair will be crucial as Notre Dame deals with hamstring injuries among its wide receivers, with Ben Skowronek likely out this week and Braden Lenzy's status uncertain.
USF's defense struggled at times in 2019, which contributed to the Bulls losing five of their final six games and surrendering 30 or more points in three of them. In all, they finished 75th nationally in scoring defense with nearly 29 points allowed per game, with a nearly equal ranking in total defense at just over 398 yards allowed per game. But The Citadel amassed just 284 total yards last week against the Bulls. Antonio Grier led the team in tackles with 10 and a sack, while Mekhi LaPointe grabbed the unit's lone interception.
The Bulls are 11-28 all-time against ranked opponents, with losses in all three such games last year. USF also is 4-12 on the road against ranked teams, its last such win coming — incidentally — in 2011 at Notre Dame. But as Notre Dame showed against Duke, its veteran-led defense is key to its continued success. Speaking of continued success, an Irish win on Saturday would extend its home winning streak to 20 games, which would be the second-longest in program history and is the third-longest active streak among Power 5 programs.
Prediction: Notre Dame 35, USF 20
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of @NDFootball)