Opponent outlook: Notre Dame presents opportunity for USF, first-year head coach Jeff Scott

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The University of South Florida has delivered upsets against a few notable football programs in its 24-year history.

There was the 26-23 overtime win at No. 17 Auburn in 2007. Two years later, USF knocked off No. 18 Florida State 17-7. No. 16 Notre Dame lost its 2011 season opener and only game against USF ever 23-20 after a couple weather delays.

The Bulls (1-0) will hope to surprise the college football world again when facing the No. 7 Irish (1-0, 1-0 ACC) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on USA Network). They enter the matchup as 26-point underdogs under new head coach Jeff Scott.

After leaving his role as Clemson’s offensive coordinator, Scott inherited a USF program that finished 4-8 in 2019. The Bulls found some recent success under previous head coaches Willie Taggart and Charlie Strong, winning 11 and 10 games in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

USF defeated the Citadel, an FCS program, 27-6 in its season opener last Saturday. Playing the Irish gives the Bulls and Scott a chance to see how they match up against a highly touted program.

“This is a point in our program where really our guys are going to be able to play loose, play confident and play free,” Scott said in his press conference on Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to the day where we have a chance to play in a game like this and we are expected to win the game. We aren’t there yet at all.”

Notre Dame and USF announced a three-game series between the schools on Aug. 27. Saturday’s game filled a hole in their non-conference schedules. Notre Dame had initially scheduled Western Michigan, while USF had Nevada. Both of those opponents had their seasons suspended by their conferences last month.

We caught up with Joey Knight of the Tampa Bay Times for more insight on the Bulls.

What were your biggest takeaways from USF’s win over the Citadel last Saturday?

Knight: “Not much to ascertain from a game against an FCS team that runs a 20th-century offense (triple option). However, the Bulls do appear more disciplined. After ranking 110th and 125th nationally in penalty yards per game the last two seasons, USF was whistled only five times for 50 yards Saturday. Toss in a turnover-free night, and that’s a pair of positive statistics on which to build.”

What are your expectations for Jeff Scott at USF and beyond?

Knight: “Home-run hire. A Florida native, Scott is a Dabo Swinney disciple through and through, right down to his meticulous attention to detail. At our first one-on-one meeting, he showed me Clemson’s 2019 “All-In” manual, a three-ring mammoth that outlines every particle of the program (rules, philosophy, strength-and-conditioning schedules, on-campus visit protocols, etc.). Needless to say, he’s developing a similar manual for the Bulls. Bottom line, Scott will get it done at USF — eventually. He just needs a couple more recruiting classes to get things rolling.”

How did USF fans feel about USF scheduling Notre Dame at the last minute?

Knight: “Gleeful, especially considering (A) the season opener at Texas was called off, and (B) the Bulls get a home game against the Irish out of the deal. Athletic director Michael Kelly hasn’t been bashful about scheduling prominent Power Five teams, and this 11th-hour, two-for-one deal may have been his best coup yet. Sure, USF could’ve used a fat paycheck for going to South Bend (it gets no cash guarantee), but that return game in Tampa (year TBD) will sell out.”

What do you think coaching against the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium will be like for offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr.?

Knight: “While I understand the obvious storyline, the younger Weis will arrive Friday evening, coach from the box on Saturday, then fly back to Tampa immediately after the game. If he were hanging out in South Bend for a long weekend, or confronting people who antagonized his dad all those years ago, things might be different. But this is a business trip, plain and simple.”

Which players could make some noise against Notre Dame?

Knight: “Watch for 5-foot-5 sparkplug Johnny Ford, who will line up in the backfield and slot receiver. Suspended most of last season, Ford showed flashes of how dynamic he can be against the Citadel (nine carries, 71 yards; two catches, 15 yards). The Bulls likely will employ at least two quarterbacks: 2019 incumbent Jordan McCloud and grad transfer Noah Johnson the 2018 SWAC Player of the Year at Alcorn State. While the two combined for only 92 passing yards Saturday, Johnson ran for 49 (and a TD) on seven carries. The third contender in the preseason derby, North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin, was listed as “unavailable” against the Citadel. Fortin is believed to possess the best arm of the three, but his status for Saturday is unclear. Scott has said he’d like to know for sure who his No. 1 guy is by the American Athletic Conference opener at Cincinnati on Oct. 3.”

Three offensive line starters were ruled out against the Citadel: left tackle Donovan Jennings, left guard Demetris Harris and center Brad Cecil. What is their status for Saturday?

Knight: “While we don’t expect Scott to specify the reason for the trio’s absence, one can reasonably surmise it’s related to COVID-19. In addition to Jennings, Harris and Cecil, backup lineman Sebastian Sainterling also was listed as “unavailable” for the Citadel game. The three starters happen to be USF’s most experienced linemen. Jennings is a borderline NFL prospect. Whether they are cleared to play this weekend is anyone’s guess.”

Scoring prediction: Notre Dame 40, USF 10.

Knight: “After Saturday’s feel-good triumph, Scott and Co. will get a sobering reminder of how much work remains to restore USF as a Group of Five elite. USF never established much of a passing game against the Citadel (18-for-25, 102 yards), and really could be in trouble if the three linemen remain out. Defensively, the Bulls’ depth up front — a glaring preseason concern — faces arguably its biggest challenge of the year in Week Two.”

South Florida Bulls linebacker Antonio Grier (5) celebrates a play during the third quarter against the Citadel Bulldogs at Raymond James Stadium last Saturday.