Holtz familiar with 'eye-opening' Pitt, WVU offenses
NEWPORT, R.I. -- The two coaches expected to be Skip Holtz's toughest competition for a Big East title are new to the conference, but USF's coach knows Pittsburgh's Todd Graham and West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen quite well.
Holtz's two Conference USA championships at East Carolina came in wins over those two coaches, having edged Graham's Tulsa team 27-24 in 2008, then beat a Houston team with Holgorsen at offensive coordinator in a 38-32 shootout in 2009.
"Skip is a guy I have tremendous respect for," Graham said at the Big East media day on Tuesday. "I didn't like the last time I played him. We lost the conference championship and were actually picked to win that thing."
Graham and Holgorsen are known for their prolific offenses -- in the '09 C-USA title game against ECU, Houston quarterback Case Keenum went 56-for-75 passing for 527 yards (and lost), and in 2008, the Cougars piled up 621 yards in knocking off a ranked ECU team in Greenville.
"This conference is in for an eye-opening offensive explosion," Holtz said of his two new colleagues. "We all better get ready, because it's different than what anybody else has done in this league. Having played against them, they're of that mindset that they're going to snap the ball every eight seconds. ... They both do a great job and I'm excited they're in the league."
The two new coaches met last season when Tulsa faced Oklahoma State (where Holgorsen spent one season as offensive coordinator) and the two offenses combined for 1,150 yards in the Cowboys' 65-28 win.
The gaudy numbers Graham and Holgorsen have put up at Tulsa and Houston were also against comparably soft C-USA defenses. Holtz pointed out that USF ranked 17th nationally in total defense last year and 22nd in scoring defense, while ranking fifth in the eight-team Big East in both categories.
"When you get on the inside, you realize how good our defense is (in the Big East)," he said. "I think it's going to be interesting to see the true emphasis of 'Does offense or defense win championships?'
Speaking of defense, USF defensive coordinator Mark Snyder also knows Graham and Holgorsen well, having been head coach at Marshall when both were in C-USA. His Marshall team jumped out to a 30-3 lead in beating Houston 37-23 in 2008, but also lost 38-31 and 38-35 to Tulsa in 2007-08, allowing more than 500 yards in each game.
"They put up some points. We had some barnburners," Snyder said of his games against Tulsa last month.
The first reunion is Sept. 29, when USF's Big East opener is at Pittsburgh. Holtz and Graham have a history of tight games -- that first conference title came on a field goal with 1:43 left after ECU forced seven Tulsa turnovers, and in 2006, a Rice team coached by Graham beat Holtz and ECU, rallying from a 17-9 deficit in the final three minutes and winning on a 40-yard field goal with 3.1 seconds left.
Holtz and Graham are looking forward to meeting again, but count Holgorsen as the least nostalgiac of the group, saying his background with the coaches won't change how he prepares for USF or Pittsburgh at all.
"It adds a storyline for you guys," he said. "It doesn't matter how familiar I am with Skip or Todd or any of that. You're going to treat the game the same. At the beginning of the week, you're going to watch a bunch of film to try to figure out what their football team is all about ... Good storyline, doesn't affect what we do from a coaching angle whatsoever."