TAMPA — It was perhaps the most improbable — and most incredible — play for USF in Saturday's 23-20 victory 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 went into the outstretched arms of cornerback Kayvon Webster, who raced 96 yards down the USF sideline for a 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 defense that recovered only five fumbles last season.
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 such as USF, but the odds were certainly against that play.
Notre Dame's running backs had gone 224 carries without losing a fumble; 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 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 added an interception in the fourth quarter and was named Big East defensive player of the week, had a strong week, being selected as one of the 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.
Creating turnovers — USF 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 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."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.