Top 10 Plays of the Year — No. 2

The following is part of an extended series that will appear on throughout this week. We will be counting down the 10 most memorable plays of the 2011 season for Notre Dame. These are plays that standout for their spectacular athleticism and grit, but also for the significance they had on the course of the season as a whole. Join the conversation by sharing your memories of each play and where it will rank on your own list of the year's best.

No. 2 — Year of the Turnover Starts Early

The Situation: Notre Dame entered the 2011 season with high hopes and the means to fulfill them. The Irish were ranked 16th in the country and many expected them to climb closer to the top as the season moved forward. Their first test, South Florida, was billed as a team not to be overlooked. The Bulls’ head coach Skip Holtz understood what it takes to win in South Bend and his team was expected to contend for a Big East championship.

Notre Dame started the season running sharply downhill against the Bulls for the first seven plays of the game. Irish junior Cierre Wood caught a 31-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage. After a Michael Floyd catch for 26 yards, Wood carried the ball four times in a row to set his offense up with a 3rd-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line.

The Play: Notre Dame senior Jonas Gray lines up as the tailback in a jumbo package for the Irish. The offense has two tight ends on the field along with linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Steve Filer who checked in as a fullback and wing to add some muscle power to the backfield.

Gray takes the hand-off heading to his left. He crashes into a trio of South Florida defenders at the 1-yard line and surges forward with a second effort. Linebacker Michael Lanaris stands his ground and safety Jerrell Young, with his heels on the goal line, pries the ball loose from Gray’s grip. The ball hops only twice on the turf before Kayvon Webster scoops it and takes off down the field. Surprised Notre Dame players dive at his heels, but once Webster clears the initial fray he has a clear path to an uncontested 96-yard touchdown run.

The Big Picture: Even if South Florida pounces on Gray’s fumble and recovers without a return, there is no telling how different the parallel universe of another Notre Dame football season could have been. Gray bounced back admirably during the season, but the Irish never recovered momentum against South Florida. A bright, sunny day rapidly deteriorated in a stormy, brow-furrowing mess. Four more turnovers followed against a South Florida team that was not as good as expected this year. Notre Dame continued to battle throughout the game, but fell just short in a 23-20 loss that dropped them from the national polls for the following six weeks.

Senior quarterback Dayne Crist took the biggest blow from Kayvon Webster’s return. He fought through two devastating knee injuries and two long off-seasons of rehabilitation for his chance to shine with the Irish, but the 14-point swing that resulted from that play set his career on a course that would have been hard to change. Irish coach Brian Kelly started the second half with sophomore Tommy Rees and never looked back. If Gray’s lunge went an extra foot, the 17-point halftime deficit would have been at least a touchdown smaller. No matter how short the leash Kelly provided for Crist, it would have been too soon to hit the panic button. As they say, football is a game of inches.

Gray's fumble did have a silver lining. The senior said that play was a wake-up call and gave him the motivation he needed to take his game to the next level. Gray said he never really had a chip on his shoulder during his first three years at Notre Dame, and that play gave him something to prove.

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