Holtz returns to South Bend with South Florida
Skip Holtz will see a stadium that has been expanded by 21,000 seats since his last visit to Notre Dame 15 years ago.
That chilly day in 1996 was a celebration of sorts, watching his dad Lou coach his final home game for the Irish. It wrapped up one of the most successful tenures in the school's long history, including Notre Dame's last national title in 1988.
Now Skip Holtz will stand on the sideline Saturday and try to beat Notre Dame, the place where he earned his degree and once played for and coached under his dad.
He'll be bringing South Florida to South Bend and looking for a program-turning victory over the school that has meant so much to his life.
It's a place, ''That made me who I am,'' he said.
His plan is to make sure his players got to soak up some of the tradition and see the campus and some of its unique features like ''Touchdown Jesus,'' the huge mural on the wall of the library that can be seen over one end zone.
''I don't want them to go there and be `oohed and aahed.' We're going to play a football game, but at the same time I want them to understand the entire experience,'' Holtz said.
Like his counterpart, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Holtz is in his second season with a new program. Both the Irish and the Bulls finished 8-5 a year ago and won a bowl game.
Kelly won his debut over Purdue a year ago but acknowledges that even after two decades of college head coaching, he still gets nervous before the first game.
''Absolutely,'' he said. ''There are different kinds of nervousness. One is not being prepared and one is coaching 18-to-21-year-olds. ...You're still obviously confident in your plan, but it still has to come to fruition.''
South Florida is no stranger to football success in its brief history of football. The Bulls, who joined FBS in 2000, have compiled five straight seasons with at least eight victories and have been to six straight bowls, winning four of them.
Now the Bulls face a Notre Dame team that is ranked 16th nationally, has impact starters back on both sides of the ball and will be out to kick start a season with the goal of reaching a BCS bowl. The Irish are also much more comfortable with Kelly, his staff and the systems he wants to run.
South Florida returns six starters on defense and three other players who also started at one time or another. Linebacker Sam Barrington, defensive tackle Cory Grissom and corner back Quenton Washington head the Bulls defense.
Quarterback B.J. Daniels and his ability to scramble has the Irish concerned, especially since he can throw on the run, just when it looks like he's about to take off. He's got two receivers returning who missed last season with injuries in A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin. The running game has added Colorado transfer Darrell Scott.
Daniels has 25 career TD passes and has accumulated nearly 5,000 yards of total offense. Sturdy at 6-foot, 223 pounds, he poses a problem for a Notre Dame defense that was primarily responsible for a four-game winning streak that ended the 2010 season.
Led by linebackers Manti Te'o and Darius Fleming, the Irish must contain Daniels and keep him from reeling off yards from broken plays.
''It's a dynamic that you almost have to be in that situation to feel how hard it is to get it figured out,'' Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said.
''It's a full team understanding and effort and with that said, he's an athletic and fast player with contact balance and vision and he's going to get his. That's just the nature of defending in 2011.''
Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist is returning from his second knee surgery in as many years and regained the No. 1 role by winning a competition with Tommy Rees, the starter during the four-game winning streak last season.
''Rehab is tough. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. It's some dark times. If you don't love it, it's pretty easy to quit and give in. Those thoughts never really crossed my mind because of how much I love football,'' Crist said.
Crist will look to Michael Floyd, the all-time TD reception leader in school history, who was reinstated to the team just before training camp started last month. He'd been suspended by Kelly after his arrest in March for drunken driving.
Speedy slot receiver Theo Riddick, who missed four games last season with an ankle injury, and running back Cierre Wood, will test the South Florida defense. The Bulls allowed 20 points a game last season.
All the game details will be important to Holtz when he takes the field Saturday.
''I think I just need to keep it in perspective that the game is much bigger for South Florida than it is for Skip Holtz,'' Holtz said. ''I have to turn and put my emotions and my enthusiasm for having the opportunity to go back on the back shelf for what we are trying to do as a team.''