It could be the little things, like the way his players like to eat chicken parmesan, or the careful, thoughtful selection of roommates, or how there is no such thing as an offensive bus or defensive bus on the way to a hostile stadium. But USF football coach Skip Holtz thinks the key to winning on the road has much more to do with confidence and closeness, two things that were strengths of his first Bulls team, and should be again this fall. If the Bulls are to take the next step and become Big East champions, much of that will happen away from Tampa, with four of their first five conference games on the road. "I think winning on the road, you have to be an extremely confident football team," said Holtz, whose second season opens Saturday at No. 16 Notre Dame.
"You have to be able to rely on each other. You don't need the crowd behind you to create the momentum and the energy and everything else. You have to do that yourself. Confidence does not come from winning. Confidence is built all winter, all spring, all summer. When you're on the road, you're all you have. You better be together. If you're not, you're going to struggle on the road."
For years, USF struggled on the road. Sure, there were signature road victories — at Auburn in 2007, at Florida State in 2009. But in the Big East, take away three wins at then-harmless Syracuse, and USF went 3-12 at the rest of the league in five seasons under Jim Leavitt. Last fall, after a 3-3 start to Holtz's first season, the Bulls found momentum in, of all places, Cincinnati and Louisville, two stadiums where they'd lost a combined six straight.
They weren't pretty wins — giving up 590 yards in a 38-30 nailbiter at Cincy, then escaping in overtime at Louisville, 24-21, after trailing 14-3. But they found confidence there on the road, and that helped muster an overtime win at Miami, then a bowl victory against Clemson in what might as well have been a Tigers home game in Charlotte, N.C.
"You don't beat yourself, you play great defense, you battle, stay close, get them in the fourth quarter. Those things are how you win on the road," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "I think changes that Coach (Holtz) did from the previous staff, the kids didn't feel the same pressure so to speak: 'Oh, we've never won here. We've never won here.' This is all different to us. How we travel was different. How we fed them was different. Where we stayed was different. That may have been a psychological help to the kids who have been around for a while, too."
To demystify the road game, Holtz started by taking his team away from Tampa at a time when nearly all college teams are on campus. In each of his two preseasons, the Bulls have trained for 12 days in Vero Beach at the former Dodgertown complex, bunkering down for distraction-free football and making themselves feel at home away from home, for no other reason than the company they keep.
"Skip does a great job with focusing and preparing to go on the road," Bulls defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "It was a point of emphasis because we heard when we got here that we hadn't played well at the end of the year here. We addressed it early. There's no magic pill. It's more of a chemistry, how you travel. Is the plane late? There are a lot of things that go into play. Last year, all our trips were smooth as buttermilk."
The schedule-makers kindly kept the Bulls out of cold weather this year, as they finish the season with three home games. The last is a Thursday night, Dec. 1 on ESPN, against preseason Big East favorite West Virginia in a game that could settle the league championship. For that to happen, the Bulls must survive on the road — from Sept. 24 to Nov. 19, they have one home game in a span of 56 days, with four Big East road games mixed in.
The first three are at Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Rutgers, three stadiums where USF is 2-7 since joining the Big East, including 2009 when they were 0-3 and outscored by a combined 60 points. That people are even considering it possible that the Bulls could thrive in such a stretch shows how different a road team they've become in the last year.
"It talks about the growth and maturity of this football program," Holtz said. "You've got to be able to play on the road. To win a league, you have to be able to play on the road. Even moreso for the challenge we have this year, playing four conference games on the road. The mind-set these players are developing, the confidence they're gaining … You're past learning what to do, now you're learning how to do it."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.