Following Flynt - A Turning Point

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ND-USF 47.jpgWhether six months or 30 years from now, when we look back on the 2011 season it is very possible that the South Florida and Michigan games will be recognized as turning points.

Over the course of a 12-game season, it may seem odd to look at an opening-weekend loss as the proverbial fork in the road.

Then again, consider Saturday's game. One might argue that the 14-point swing on the first possession was the pendulum that shifted momentum away from the Irish.

Using an attack both on the ground and through the air, Notre Dame's offense appeared to be moving the ball at will, but the forced fumble and defensive touchdown opened the gate in favor of Skip Holtz's Bulls, who never looked back.

Given the nature of college football, every play, every yard and every second matters. For better or worse, a single moment can turn a drive, game or season.

That is not to conclude that a first-quarter fumble was the deciding factor in why the Irish were on the losing end in Saturday's marathon game. Four additional turnovers and eight penalties for 73 yards certainly did not help Notre Dame's cause.

In the end, the Irish piled up twice as many offensive yards as the Bulls and had a last-minute onside kick bounced a bit differently, they might have had a chance to tie or win the game.

Yet despite the close final score, once they fell behind early in the first quarter I never got the sense that the Irish were going to win the game.

Now, the Irish are a few days away from a trip to Ann Arbor and a meeting with one of their biggest rivals for the first-ever night game at Michigan Stadium. ESPN's College GameDay will be in town and the teams will be wearing special retro-style uniforms. Tickets to this game are among the most wanted in the nation for the entire season.

On top of that, Brian Kelly announced Tuesday that he would be looking toTommy Rees to lead the offense against Michigan. It is safe to say there is a lot of intrigue surrounding this weekend's matchup.

Kelly ended weeks of speculation by announcing on Aug. 23 that Crist would start at quarterback. Though he expressed confidence in both quarterbacks' ability to play "championship-caliber" football, Kelly also made it known that he expected Crist to start throughout the season. Except for the opening drive, Crist struggled for much of the first half on Saturday, and Rees replaced him when the game resumed following the first weather delay.

If Rees keeps his unbeaten streak intact and leads the Irish to a victory against Michigan, the sophomore may position himself as the leader of the Irish offense for the rest of the season. If he struggles however, it may be back to the drawing board for Coach Kelly and his staff.

How the Irish play this Saturday will say a lot about the team's identity in 2011. As is always the case in South Bend, expectations were high coming into the season. During the summer, we heard much about how the Irish had improved since 2010, how focused they were in training camp and how Coach Kelly's second year could have his team playing in a BCS bowl game.

But the USF game left many wondering where that focus had gone, as penalties and turnovers were the team's Achilles' heel.

With one loss already on their record, the Irish are almost assured they will not be playing for the national championship in New Orleans. However, the Big Easy could still be their New Year's destination for the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3.

I am not suggesting or assuming that Notre Dame is a BCS-caliber team. My point, however, is that there are 11 games left to play and the Irish have put USF in their rear-view mirror.

Though Saturday's loss led many people to begin writing off the 2011 season, whether the Irish win or lose in Ann Arbor, they can still win 10 games and have a shot at a BCS game.

More importantly than the statistical difference between 1-1 and 0-2, is how the team responds to the adversity of an opening weekend loss and how they play in primetime in college football's largest stadium. Win or lose, this game could very well set the tone for the rest of the year.

So whether you are making the trip to Michigan Stadium or watching from the comfort of your living room, stay tuned because Saturday evening's game could tell you a lot about the type of Irish team you will see for the rest of the 2011 season.

- Josh Flynt

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