SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- His players gave him a collective hug, and shouted beautiful words.
“We’ve got your back,” they told him.
“We love you,” they said.
“We appreciate you.”
“This one’s for you.”
Skip Holtz never uttered one word to his players about what a win at Notre Dame would mean to him. But did he really have to? None of his players were alive when Holtz played there, but they were not born yesterday.
They understand the history, the tradition, the meaning -- even if the Irish of today are far different than the Irish of the Holtz era.
So they embraced their coach and embraced the start of what could be a rollicking season, beating Notre Dame 23-20 Saturday.
The way they did it, with a bend-but-don’t-break defense, surviving two weather delays, coming up with gigantic plays when they had to -- that spoke to Holtz more than winning at a place that has meant so much to him and his family.
So now the inevitable question comes, once we get past the sentimental meaning of this game. What does a win like this do for USF?
Surely there have been big wins in the history of the program. Miami. Florida State. Auburn. Is this the biggest?
“We’ve had some big wins, but as I told the team last week, I’m much more concerned how we handle this game, whether we win or lose,” Holtz said. “What we have not done is we have not been able to line up and play consistently throughout the course of a year and win a Big East championship. That’s the No. 1 goal that we have as a football team right now with what we’re trying to do.”
Holtz wants to keep sight of what is ahead, but there is no question a win like this gets the Bulls much-deserved national attention. Going on the road and beating a ranked team will do that, regardless of the recent history at Notre Dame.
The Holtz story line was a nice one, and he grew emotional when asked how it felt to win there. He said it had not sunk in. But what had sunk in was the tenacity of his players.
All summer, the defense preached turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. “[The coaches] emphasized turnovers, just getting our hands on the ball, strips, interceptions, anything we can do to change the momentum of the game and make plays,” cornerback Quenton Washington said.
The game plan going into the game was to have a bend-but-don’t-break defense, to make sure it did not give up huge pass plays, specifically to Michael Floyd.
If the Irish ran 20 plays in a drive so be it. So long as they did not reach the end zone. The strategy paid off because the defensive players came up with one gigantic play after another.
It started on the first drive of the game. Notre Dame marched straight down the field, ripping off a 31-yard gain, then a 26-yard gain. The Irish got down to the USF 1-yard line when Jonas Gray got the ball. He rushed into the pile, but Jerrell Young was there. He stuck his hand onto the ball and with the strength of Midas, ripped it out. The ball came loose. Kayvon Webster was there to grab it, and he ran 96 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.
“I hit him and my teammates held him up and I put my hand there,” Young said. “I felt the ball and I just ripped and it came out.”
But that was not all. Incredibly, USF stopped Notre Dame two more times inside the 5-yard line. Next it was DeDe Lattimore with an interception in the end zone. Later, it was Mike Lanaris with an interception off a deflected pass to kill another drive.
In all, the Bulls got five turnovers and won the game -- despite giving up 508 yards and gaining just 254.
“We had luck. I’ll say luck of the Irish,” Young said with a laugh. “I commend my teammates to keep fighting. We kept giving them yards, but we held tight.
“We stood up in the end when it mattered.”
Now they have a victory that matters. But how the Bulls follow it up is what matters the most.
“We really wanted this win for the program,” Young said. “It’s a big step, Notre Dame with their history and all. But even if we had won or lost this game, it had nothing to do with our Big East championship goal.”