Skip Holtz didn’t want to say anything. He spent the week preparing his South Florida football team for its big game at Notre Dame, and didn’t want to talk about his past, his love for Notre Dame, his alma mater, didn’t want to mention what it meant to him.
“Our players weren’t even born when I was here,’’ he said. “It was that many years ago. I wasn’t going to make it about me.’’
Well, you can’t exactly hide the name Holtz and its connection to Notre Dame. So when South Florida beat Notre Dame 23-20 Saturday, Holtz’s team was waiting for him. Notre Dame’s coaches and players were singing the alma mater with the fans behind the end zone, as tradition calls for. Skip’s father, Lou, used to sing there, too, after wins as Notre Dame’s coach.
And just a few feet from that spot, South Florida’s players, all of them, waited for, and then hugged Holtz, and told him they loved him.
“’We’ve got your back, Coach. We love you. We thank you,’’’ Holtz said, repeating it a few minutes later. “Just to have the team respect me and say the things they did to me …’’
So that’s the glory of the day. That, and South Florida, which has had a team for only 13 years or so, beating big, bad historic Notre Dame.
Then there was the weird of the day. Two weather delays totaling nearly three hours. A two-hour halftime, where coaches had to agree on things such as not watching film, and having food delivered. The sky was black, and the lightning went from sky to ground. The stadium was evacuated. Twice. The game lasted nearly six hours.
And last, there was the failure of the day. And that was Notre Dame.
The Irish are already in trouble. Coach Brian Kelly already had to change quarterbacks at halftime of the season opener. Notre Dame kept giving the ball away just as the Irish were about to score, two interceptions in the end zone and one fumble returned 96 yards. And punt returner Theo Riddick has one serious flaw: He is not able to catch a punt without falling down flat on his face.
“I told him to get his butt back out there,’’ Kelly said. “If we’re going to have the kind of playmakers we need at that position, we don’t have a waiver wire, we can’t trade for anybody.’’
This was supposed to be the year that Notre Dame finally started to wipe away the stench of Charlie Weis, head coaching intern. Kelly wasn’t a smashing success last year, his first, but the Irish did win their final four games, including big ones over USC and then Miami in the Sun Bowl. The defense was great, and the system was taking place.
But this year, Kelly benched quarterback Tommy Rees, who led the team to all those wins, in favor of senior Dayne Crist, who spent the first half Saturday in sort of a daze or panic or something. He was a split-second slow … delayed. Unable to be aggressive.
So Rees came in after the longest halftime in history, and marched the team downfield with ease, and got right up to the end zone where he … threw an interception.
“You can’t start winning until you stop losing,’’ Kelly said. “And the things we did today out there obviously go to the heart of how you lose football games. You lose football games because you turn the ball over.
“You lose football games because you miss field goals. You lose the football game because you have four personal foul penalties. The list is long.’’
They are not patient at Notre Dame. They are reactive. When Weis had half a season of success, the school signed him up to a 10-year contract extension even though he had never been a head coach before.
Big, big mistake.
You have to understand how Notre Dame fans look at things. That first half of last year, Kelly’s first, when the team lost to Tulsa and Navy?
That was the rebuilding portion of Kelly’s program. Now, this is supposed to be the winning portion. Most coaches get three years. Kelly’s honeymoon is not going to last past next weekend, if the Irish lose to Michigan. By halftime Saturday, fans were booing.
“You know, we’ve been down this road before,’’ Kelly said. “The disappointing thing is that we thought going into a year where we had some experience that we wouldn’t have to go through this. But it looks like we’re going to have to make sure that our players are understanding what it takes to win football games.’’
That just does not sound like something you’d expect to hear from a Notre Dame coach.
The whole day, you kept waiting for Notre Dame to be Notre Dame. Instead, the Irish kept making every mistake, despite moving the ball easily. They trailed 16-0 in the second quarter when the sky turned black, and you had to think some new freaky new Notre Dame legend was about to happen.
When the second half started, Notre Dame started dominating.
“I was a little upset at that … ’’ Holtz said, “because I was told we’d get a 10-minute warning (before the half started), and the way we found out we were taking the field was when Notre Dame ran out onto the field.
“Our guys were laying on the floor and shoulder pads off and shoes off, and all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ It took us about half a quarter, took us about 10 minutes to get it going.’’
Notre Dame forgot to tell South Florida that it was time to take the field?
Good idea. Didn’t work.
Holtz and South Florida had their special moment. Notre Dame’s pain continued. And despite all the dark and rain and lightning, no one could shake down the thunder.