As part of the three-game deal it struck with Notre Dame in the preseason’s 11th hour, USF received no financial guarantee for its visit Saturday to South Bend, Ind.
To the contrary, it received a clear notice that the toll of feeble recruiting of recent years is coming due.
On a bright autumn day (kickoff temperature: 63 degrees), the Bulls' myriad blemishes were exposed before a national TV audience in a 52-0 loss to No. 7 Notre Dame (2-0).
The defeat was the most lopsided in USF’s 23-plus seasons, eclipsing last year’s 49-0 loss to Wisconsin on opening night. USF (1-1) now is 0-7 against ranked opponents in the post-Willie Taggart era (2017-present).
“My message to the team is, ‘Hey, we aren’t going to make any excuses,'" first-year coach Jeff Scott said.
“We’re going to take ownership. Ownership starts with me as the head coach. Any time we don’t play well, I didn’t do my job.”
The Irish’s game plan was about as glaring as the Golden Dome: exploit their size advantage up front to operate off a power run game. Notre Dame’s starting interior offensive line averaged 309 pounds, and was complemented by two- and three-tight-end formations.
“If we were going to play them nine more times I’d be very concerned," Scott said, "because they were a very talented offensive line.”
The Irish scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions en route to a 35-0 halftime lead. For the game, they outgained USF, 429-231, and finished 8-for-14 on third down. Three Irish backs ran for at least 62 yards including leading rusher C’Bo Flemister (13 carries, 127 yards, one TD).
“I felt like I was playing Clemson out there the majority of the day, just in gold helmets,” said Scott, part of two Tigers national title teams during his dozen years on Dabo Swinney’s staff.
“I tip my hat to them. We knew watching the video that these guys were super talented. ... It’s definitely a playoff-caliber team.”
The Bulls, by contrast, didn’t reach Notre Dame’s red zone until the fourth quarter, finished 2-for-15 on third down, and still didn’t come close to getting a 100-yard passing effort from any of their quarterbacks. Their deepest drive ended when Scott opted to go for it on fourth-and-10 from the Irish 19 (a pass breakup in the end zone) instead of attempting a meaningless late field goal.
“They played extremely well," said McCloud, who had the most productive day (8-for-14, 64 yards) of the four Bulls quarterbacks who played. "And we just couldn’t execute like we wanted to.”
Adding to the Bulls' misery was an atrocious afternoon for their punting unit.
Veteran Trent Schneider shanked his first attempt for 21 yards, setting up an Irish touchdown. He barely got off his fourth try (after snagging a high Ian Deneen snap) deep in his own end zone, setting up Notre Dame’s fifth touchdown.
A third-quarter snap sailed high above the reach of backup punter Kenny Scribner, who recovered the ball and had his desperation try blocked. Notre Dame recovered in the Bulls end zone, giving the hosts a 45-0 lead.
Unwilling to subject Deneen to any further frustration, and bereft of a backup, Scott only attempted one more punt — a quick kick by McCloud.
“So now it’s all about how we respond to this," Scott said.
"This is an opportunity for us to see what our maturity is, our leadership and all those things. I personally believe our guys will respond the right way and we can look back at this down the road as a pivotal moment where we were able to learn and become a closer team and a better team.”
• Kudos to Jeff Scott for taking a shot at the end zone (in lieu of a meaningless field goal) in the fourth quarter, when Noah Johnson’s fourth-and-10 pass from the Notre Dame 19 was broken up in the end zone. While losing 52-3 might have been more aesthetically appealing, it would have done zilch to forward the program.
• Wharton High alumnus DeVontres Odoms-Dukes has been reborn in the Scott regime. Dukes, a fifth-year senior with eight career receptions entering the season, has five in USF’s first two games, including three on Saturday.
• Beleaguered Bulls fans can find solace in the fact they’re not likely to face a more talented team for for the rest of the year. They’re almost certain not to see a more physically imposing one. “They’re a great team, they’re a playoff team,” cornerback KJ Sails said. “But I strongly feel for the rest of this year, we’re going to give everybody a run for their money.”