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Two Mike Leach disciples face off, a Notre Dame reunion and a Sun Belt encore? What to expect in Week 3

  • ACC reporter.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of the University of Delaware.

The 2001 Texas Tech football team, led by Mike Leach, was a who’s who of future head coaches — a list that included Kliff Kingsbury, Art Briles, Sonny Dykes, Ruffin McNeill, Greg McMackin and two guys who will go head to head this weekend: Baylor’s Dave Aranda and Houston’s Dana Holgorsen.

In a game that was scheduled (*checks watch*), oh, about 45 minutes ago, Aranda and Holgorsen will face off as head coaches for the first time on Saturday, but they go way back. That the two both served on the same staff — Holgorsen as receivers coach and Aranda as a grad assistant — represents the end of the similarities, however.

A quick synopsis:

Approach to football

Aranda: Defensive mastermind
Holgorsen: Air raid guru

Hairstyle

Aranda: Smooth and shaved
Holgorsen: As if hair were made out of wacky, arm-waving inflatable tube men

Personality

Aranda: Subdued, deliberate
Holgorsen: Buys Red Bull by the pallet

Winning moment

Aranda: Last year’s national title (as defensive coordinator at LSU)
Holgorsen: “Let’s go win the f—ing game!”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the matchup lacks familiarity. In fact, Aranda said he has always been immensely impressed by Holgorsen’s energy.

Aranda recounted a story of finding Holgorsen in his office with two TVs playing at the same time. In one hand, Holgorsen had a remote, fast-forwarding through plays on a cut-up of the next week’s opponent. In the other hand, he held another remote, fast-forwarding through the movie “Tombstone” trying to find a quote he really liked.

“The guy that was kind of keeping everything running was Dana,” Aranda said.

And what does Holgorsen remember about working with Aranda at Texas Tech?

“I’ve followed him and watched him, and his success is not surprising,” Holgorsen said. “But I don’t remember a whole lot about him [at Texas Tech], honestly.”

Ah, the life of a grad assistant.

Still, Leach remembers that staff as a truly idyllic meeting of the minds — even if, in the case of Aranda and Holgorsen, there wasn’t a ton of overlap in approach.

“They always got along great,” Leach said. “Just very different personalities. One was all offense, and one was all defense.”

Game day Q&A with Tulane’s Keon Howard

Keon Howard was the starting quarterback at Southern Miss way back in 2017. On Oct. 21 of that year, he won a game vs. Louisiana Tech. Two weeks later, against Tennessee, he was 7-of-22 passing and was benched. He wouldn’t start another game for nearly three years.

Last Saturday, Howard was back at QB, this time for Tulane, leading a fourth-quarter comeback victory over South Alabama.

How big of a comeback story was it? It had been 1,058 days between victories for Howard as a starting QB, the longest stretch between two wins since Damian Williams went 1,380 between two of the three games he won as a starter — first at Mississippi State (2013) and then at Texas State (2017) — according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Howard is hoping for a little better legacy than that. We talked to him about his return from the abyss and his hopes for Tulane in 2020.

ESPN: You went three years between wins. What was it like to get the opportunity to go out there and have that experience again?

Howard: You really said the key word — opportunity. I’m just taking advantage of the opportunity that was given to me. I’ve been doing this since I was 4 years old. My whole note to myself was to go out and do my job and get a ‘W’ and let it unfold how it is going to unfold.

ESPN: Did you ever wonder if you’d ever get the chance to do this again?

Howard: No. I always try to look at the glass halfway full and keep a positive mindset with everything. I knew my opportunity would come. I just didn’t know when. My favorite Bible verse is, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand afterward.” So I just stay faithful and know my opportunity would come, and I’ll be ready when it does.

ESPN: What did the experience over the last three years teach you?

Howard: I think 2020 in general, it’s been a year where you have to be able to take one day at a time because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I’m blessed with 24 hours to take advantage of that opportunity.

ESPN: Do you see yourself as a role model for overcoming adversity?

Howard: No doubt. Every time my feet hit the ground, I’m fighting. I’m blessed to fight through adversity. Going through those trials, I hope younger kids, younger quarterbacks, that might look up to me, they’ll see downs and highs and lows and you have to be persistent, stay working, stay dedicated and have a commitment — not just to yourself, but to your teammates to push them and uplift them and just know your time will come. And when it does come, be ready.

ESPN: You wear No. 9 to honor your godfather, Steve McNair. What did he mean in your life?

Howard: He impacted my life in so many ways — mentorship, him and his brothers and the whole McNair family. They took me in when I was in the seventh grade, and they treated me like their own, not just with football and life in general. Seeing how much [Steve] really worked and the preparation time, the lives he impacted around the community. Seeing how many people he truly impacted over the years really means a lot to me, and when I wear that number, it brings pride, but it also brings responsibility to know that his legacy will still live on through me as long as I’m playing.

Will quality of play improve in Week 3?

North Carolina head coach Mack Brown finally got around to checking his phone Saturday night after an ugly but ultimately convincing 31-6 win over Syracuse. Brown had a bunch of texts from some local pals all offering a sort of backhanded congratulations.

“Glad to see you finally showed up at halftime,” one read.

As backhanded compliments go, this one stung — as did the 10 or 15 others, Brown said.

Brown simply wrote back, “1-0, mission accomplished,” but even he was acutely aware that even in a win, there was lots of work left to do.

Such was life for nearly everyone after the Week 2 games, when shoddy play was the norm and the old adage that teams make their biggest progress between the first and second games became less a cliché and more a desperate hope for coaches.

Take a look at North Carolina, in particular: The Tar Heels missed a field goal. They roughed the punter. They fumbled a punt return that led to a score. They had a punt return called back for an illegal block and allowed Syracuse to return a punt that (luckily for UNC) was also called back for a rather benign blocking penalty. And those were just the special-teams gaffes.

The kicking games around the country were a mess. Never the most reliable of sorts even in a normal week, FBS kickers missed nearly 40% of their field goal tries last week.

And then there was Navy’s Labor Day fiasco, a lethargic walk-through that coach Ken Niumatalolo chalked up to a lack of contact and physicality in camp after coronavirus worries convinced him it was best to hold back.

In the aftermath of UNC’s sloppy play, Brown asked a seemingly strange question of his guys the day after the game: When did you believe — genuinely believe — you’d play this game?

After an offseason of stops and starts and rumors and changes and what-ifs, Brown expected some divergent answers. Instead, there was a pretty clear consensus.

“By and large, these guys were practicing, but in their mind, they weren’t prepared to play a game until 10 days or maybe a week ago,” Brown said.

It’s hard to blame them. At Houston, Holgorsen held a “mock game” last Saturday to get his team ready for Memphis, even as players began hearing rumors of a COVID-19 outbreak at Memphis that would ultimately cancel their game. A few hours later, Houston had a new game scheduled against Baylor, sending grad assistants and team analysts scurrying for film.

“A day later was the first time our players actually believed we were going to play a game,” Holgorsen said. “If Memphis got canceled and I had to practice them another week without a game, I didn’t know how I was going to approach that.”

That kind of chaos creates a direct line to the sloppy play on the field, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy said.

“It’s just preparation,” Gundy said. “There’s been a level of how physical teams want to prepare and your limitations based on the virus.”

So what does that mean for this week?

Well, kickers will be kickers, so there might be no easy solution for that. The rest is largely some combination of better preparation and a lot of hope.

“You just have to click right into it and go with it,” Aranda said. “We’re fortunate that we got ourselves a really good game, and we have an opportunity to go out and show what we’ve got. I know our guys are excited.”

Charlie Weis Jr. returns to Notre Dame

Yes, Charlie Weis Jr. has thought about how it will feel when he walks into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday and takes his spot on the visitors sideline. Yes, he might hum the fight song by accident when it starts playing during pregame warm-ups. No, the USF offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach has not let any of that get in the way of preparing the Bulls’ offense for the big challenge ahead.

In fact, Weis Jr. said when he heard that USF was working on a last-minute deal to play Notre Dame, his first thought was, “We’ve got a lot of work to do because they’re really good,” he said with a laugh. But naturally, he and his father, former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, have talked about a career coming full circle.

Weis Jr. got his start as a teenager on the Notre Dame sideline with his father, famously wearing a headset and helping. He saw the highs and the lows, and felt the sting when he was a junior in high school and his father was fired. But Notre Dame still holds a special place to him, and there’s more than one reason for that.

“It’s definitely something I thought about and dreamt about, it would be really cool to go back to South Bend, a place that I love, a place that I still call home and get to be in Notre Dame Stadium one more time,” Weis Jr. said. “I was really excited about the opportunity to go there. It’s a very special place to us.”

His sister, Hannah, still lives in South Bend at the group home and neighborhood their parents established for her and others with special needs, Hannah & Friends. Before Notre Dame was even on the schedule, Weis Jr. drove 16 hours each way to go visit her over the summer. Given the COVID-19 restrictions, Weis Jr. was able to see her only through a screened door.

The trip on Saturday, though, will be strictly business. And Weis Jr. is ready for it.

“We’re telling our players this is an awesome experience, it’s a place that’s a bucket list for most people to go to,” Weis Jr. said. “We told them, when you first see it, enjoy the moment, and then once that ball gets kicked off, it’s all about South Florida, it’s all about us and doing our job.” — Andrea Adelson

What to watch for

The Sun Belt’s encore presentation: For a Group of 5 conference, it’s hard to do much better than what the Sun Belt did last week. Louisiana and Arkansas State came up with two of the three biggest upsets in college football. This weekend, the Ragin’ Cajuns take on a Georgia State team that had a lot of question marks coming into 2020 — and could have many of them answered against one of the Sun Belt favorites. Another game to keep an eye on is Appalachian State vs. Marshall. The Thundering Herd return plenty of players from a team that finished 8-5 in 2019. A Mountaineers win would solidify their power at the top of the Sun Belt.

Will Navy be ready for Tulane? The positive for the Midshipmen is that Saturday’s game can’t be worse than their season opener, in which Navy got bounced 55-3 by BYU. Niumatalolo would later announce that the team would go back to normal practice with full contact and 11-on-11 scrimmages. Bluntly, Niumatalolo said, “We’re probably the cleanest team in the country [for COVID-19], but unfortunately, we suck at football right now.”

Tulane, meanwhile, faces a fair amount of turnover from a 2019 season in which it finished 7-6, but the Green Wave won’t be a slouch coming off a close win last Saturday. This week, the team extended head coach Willie Fritz, who led Tulane to its first consecutive bowl appearances, in 2018 and 2019.

Is Louisville’s offense going to show up again against Miami? It’s easy to overreact to these early games — we do even during a normal college football season. But the Louisville offense we saw in the first half against Western Kentucky was fun to watch, highlighted by Micale Cunningham’s completions of 63 and 70 yards to Braden Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick, respectively.

We’re going to get to see the Cardinals’ offense on a bigger stage this weekend when they take on 1-0 Miami (where College GameDay will be stationed). If there’s one thing Miami will try to take advantage of, it will be Louisville’s special teams, which struggled last Saturday. The Hurricanes will also look to see how QB D’Eriq King performs in his first game in conference play. He finished last week’s win over UAB 16-of-24 with 144 yards and a touchdown, but the Hurricanes are expecting more from the transfer from Houston. Louisville will be a good test.

Last-minute cancellations and quarantines: This is going to be an inevitable factor this season for any universities that have decided to play football. Just this week, Arkansas State, coming off an upset win over Kansas State, saw its game against Central Arkansas postponed due to not being able to “assemble a full two-deep depth chart at a specific position group due to player unavailability.”

Other games that were scheduled for this week that are no longer happening include Houston vs. Memphis, Tulsa vs. Oklahoma State, Virginia vs. Virginia Tech and BYU vs. Army.

That we’ve already seen so many delays, cancellations and last-minute additions probably serves as some warning to Big Ten fans eagerly anticipating their league’s return. The new safety protocols call for a one-week hiatus if more than 5% of the team tests positive, and there’s little wiggle room in the eight-game schedule model. Big Ten players spent the past month saying they wanted to play, but now they’ll need to do their part to show they’re better equipped to keep the coronavirus at bay than so many other schools still searching for answers.

Players to watch

Hale: Pitt defensive end Patrick Jones II

The best pass rusher you probably haven’t heard of is about to feast on a brutal offensive line. Jones has NFL draft first-round potential — he racked up 8.5 sacks and 18 QB pressures last year. He’ll be up against Syracuse QB Tommy DeVito, who was sacked seven times in the Orange’s opener and has gone down 51 times since the start of 2019 — eight more than any other QB in the country.

Lyles: Louisiana QB Levi Lewis

The Ragin’ Cajuns are riding high from their win over Iowa State. Lewis played a solid game and now opens up conference play against Georgia State, which has a defense with many questions. Lewis had some big performances in Sun Belt play in 2019 (most notably 354 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception against App State in the conference title game), and there would be no better way to follow up a Power 5 win than by filling the stat sheet to open up conference play.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Hale: SMU at North Texas

Like points? Here’s your game of the week. The over/under for this one is pegged at 70.5 — a full touchdown more than any other game on the docket. SMU QB Shane Buechele struggled in the opener against Texas State, but he remains incredibly dangerous. North Texas’ new starter, Jason Bean, had four touchdowns in his debut against Houston Baptist.

Lyles: App State vs. Marshall

App State had a more difficult time than expected last week with Charlotte and could be in for another challenge this week. The Thundering Herd have an experienced roster and are coming off an 8-5 season, and last week, they blew out Eastern Kentucky 59-0. Quarterback Grant Wells completed 16 of his 23 pass attempts for 307 yards and four touchdowns. Marshall also had a balanced attack on the ground, with Knowledge McDaniel and Brenden Knox combining for 32 carries and 178 yards. In a week with some pretty underwhelming games, this one should be one of the more competitive ones.

Upset picks of the week

It’s probably a little early to anoint us both as geniuses, but both of our upset picks in Week 2 — Louisiana over Iowa State (Lyles) and Coastal Carolina over Kansas (Hale) — proved to be brilliant insights. We’ll try to keep the streak going in Week 3.

Hale: Boston College over Duke

No team has been more overlooked in the ACC this year than BC. Yes, there’s a new coaching staff, but it’s not like Steve Addazio left an empty cupboard, and new head coach Jeff Hafley has gotten positive buzz this offseason. BC has arguably the best offensive line in the ACC, a stellar tailback in David Bailey, some better-than-you-think receivers and a star at linebacker in Max Richardson. More importantly, BC has been eyeing this game for a while, while Duke is fresh off a physical loss to Notre Dame.

Lyles: Marshall over Appalachian State

Marshall is well rested, and the Mountaineers let Charlotte hang around a little bit too long. That could likely be because of the inconsistent offseason due to COVID-19, but I’m willing to take a chance on the Thundering Herd.

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