'Textbook' strip-scoop-score sparked Bulls' win
TAMPA -- It was perhaps the most improbable -- and most incredible -- play for USF in Saturday's 23-20 win at No. 16 Notre Dame, and yet at the same time, its basic parts were something the Bulls do in every practice.
Notre Dame had moved through USF's defense with ease, getting gains of 31 and 26 yards in its first three plays, not reaching so much as a third down until the Fighting Irish found themselves on third and goal at USF's 1-yard line, a sellout crowd of 80,795 elated at the promise of the first drive of the season.
Irish running back Jonas Gray took a handoff to his left, and as linebackers Michael Lanaris and DeDe Lattimore stood Gray up at the 1, safety Jerrell Young reached in with his right hand and ripped out the ball, which flipped end over end, bounced twice and into the outstretched arms of cornerback Kayvon Webster, who raced 96 yards down the USF sideline for a stunning, game-changing touchdown.
"That was a huge play -- it was textbook all the way," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said Tuesday. "It was as pretty on film as it was on the field. It always makes you feel good when things you practice come to fruition."
Before practice even begins, USF defensive backs coach Rick Smith sends his players to defensive tackles coach Kevin Patrick to work on strip drills -- a must for a Bulls defense that recovered only five fumbles in all of last season.
"It was just a great thing to see," Smith said. "It makes me look like a good coach, but I have to give the credit to Coach Patrick, because he's been the one coaching the strips."
And at the end of practice, Smith turns to something Bill Curry taught him as a young assistant at Georgia Tech 30-plus years ago: he tosses footballs at his defensive backs like ground balls in baseball, teaching them the proper technique to "scoop and score," just as Webster did.
"There's an art to picking up a football, because it's oblong," Snyder said. "You've got to bend your knees, get your hands under it, scoop it, and he did all those things."
Winning at Notre Dame was difficult enough for a young program like USF, but the odds were certainly against that play. Notre Dame's running backs had gone 224 carries without losing a fumble; in all of last season, in 359 touches, the Irish runners lost just two fumbles. And yet there was Webster with the longest defensive play in USF's 15-year history, and more impressively, the longest fumble-return touchdown in 123 years of Notre Dame football.
"When Jerrell made that strip, I was just happy to be there to catch the ball on the bounce and run it for a touchdown," said Webster, a junior who is in his first year as a full-time starter.
Young, a Gibbs graduate who would add an interception in the fourth quarter and would be named Big East Defensive Player of the Week, had a strong week, being selected as one of team captains in the days leading up to the Notre Dame game. Only in practice last month did USF's coaches realize how much Young played through injuries last year, slowed by a stress fracture in his leg that continued to limit him this spring.
Smith remembered getting a phone call this spring while he was on the road recruiting; Young as on the other end, having been told by trainers he could not participate in spring football because of the severity of his leg injury.
"His voice is quivering, and he's in tears, I could tell, because they told him he couldn't go through spring practice," said Smith, who convinced trainers to allow to practice in a limited capacity. "I'm sitting there thinking 'A kid's crying because he's not going to get to go through spring practice. Boy, that's a treat.' He's well now, and he's like a different young man. He's fast, he's quick, and he's always been very intelligent and instinctive. He's really the leader back there."
Creating turnovers -- USF's coaches call them takeaways, to stress the defense's active involvement in the play -- became a major focus of the offseason, as an otherwise stout Bulls defense was consistently unable to give its offense a short field, or better yet, score itself the way it did Saturday. In one play, USF matched its defensive touchdown total for all of Skip Holtz's first season. Young hopes it's a sign of things to come.
"Coming into the season, it's something we really wanted to harp on," Young said. "(The coaches) made it known that we needed turnovers. I think we were 19th defensively last year, and like 95th, 96th in turnovers. That really was unacceptable. Since winter conditioning, we've been doing ball drills after we run, strip drills. We know if we want to be a great defense, we need turnovers, too."