GREENVILLE, N.C. - East Carolina University Head Football Coach Skip Holtz addressed members of the media prior to this week's game against Houston. The following are selected comments:
On The N.C. State Game:
"To review last week and the N.C. State game, you hate to lose; especially to an instate rival in a very emotional game which was as close as it was. You hate it for your players, your coaches, your alumni and your fans. The support we've had has just been absolutely incredible and losing kind of puts that knot in your stomach.
"You sit down so many times and ask, `What was broke? And what do we need to fix?' But I thought it was a heck of a college football game and that the two teams competed extremely hard. This is not game where you can sit down and look at it and then say that the blame falls on the offense, the defense, or the special team. I think all three phases had their opportunities to turn and win this game.
"Obviously the offense, being down in the red zone a couple times late had a chance, but our defense had the opportunity to stop them, too. I thought our kicking game had an opportunity to show up there on the final kickoff, when they turned and broke it back toward their bench for about a 45-yard return. I think there are plenty of areas where we could have gotten the job done in that game Saturday."
On Individual Performances:
"I know there were a lot of great individual efforts during that game. It was great to see Norman Whitley come out and kind of show up. I have said all along that when he gets his opportunity, I think he's going to be a really good running back. This was his type of game in the second half when we started spreading it a little bit more and giving it to a smaller, skat-back, instead of a power runner in Brandon Simmons. So Norman did a very nice job.
"I also thought that Davon Drew and Dwayne Harris both played extremely well. And I thought Patrick Pinkney was solid in a lot of respects. I think there were a lot of positive things on the offensive side to build from.
"Defensively, Van Eskridge played a great football game. C.J. Wilson and Jay Ross continue to play well and so many of those guys inside played well. Nick Johnson, who stepped in, also had an excellent game. He was all over the field and running around, playing a very spirited game. He was very productive for us Saturday.
"As far as the kicking game is concerned, I thought our punt team took a step in the right direction. We did some better things punting-wise. Matt Dodge had probably one of his best days punting. We came into that game, and through three games we had not downed a ball inside the 20-yard-line. But we downed four of them inside the 20 and gave our defense a chance early on Saturday. Their first two possessions were starting at the two and the 10-yard-line, which really limits what you can do from a play-calling standpoint.
"But I think our kickoff return and kickoff needs to continue to improve."
On The Biggest Frustrations From The N.C. State Game:
"Probably the biggest frustration of that game is that we had opportunities, and we just didn't execute. We didn't get it done on all three phases. It wasn't so much that they were physical mistakes, but that they were mental mistakes. These are things we have to look at as coaches. We're probably playing some people far too much like Van Eskridge and J.J. Milbrook, who played the entire game. I thought they played much better in the first half than the second. We're going to take a look at some things as coaches, in regards to how much some of these guys are playing."
"As injuries begin to mount up a little bit, the quality of our depth is going to be really important. We really haven't had a game in the first four to get some of these young guys in. The Virginia Tech game came right down to the wire, the West Virginia game is at home and you're playing the eighth ranked team in the country, so you're hesitant to put some of these younger guys in and have them make a mistake that puts West Virginia back in the game and obviously Tulane went right down to the end. It was the same thing on Saturday.
"All of a sudden, now you have guys who are getting in to play for the first time. Melvin Patterson played 20 plays at linebacker on Saturday for the first time. And we've got an awful lot of the younger guys who are playing on special teams. You really hope that some of their mistakes don't cost you a football game in some of these close games. We've just got to continue to preach on doing the little things and being able to execute down the stretch. I think that was the key to the game on Saturday."
On The Fourth-and-One Call:
"I've gotten a lot of questions about this, and I would have gone for it again with the situation and circumstances involved in the game. I felt like scoring a touchdown would have put us up two scores, and if we would have kicked the field goal, we were still only up one score. If we didn't get it, N.C. State would have gotten the ball on our own one-yard-line and would have had to drive 99 yards.
"In the big scheme of things, once we did not make it on fourth down, our defense held them to a three-and-out and we got the ball right back. That's what led to the final field goal, which put us ahead by seven before they [N.C. State] took the ball down scored with a minute to go in the game.
"Looking at it again, I would have done it again. I probably would have called a timeout before the play. There was a little bit of confusion, it seemed, between the fullback and the tailback on the play, but that wasn't the reason that the play wasn't successful. I even thought about calling a time out because it was a big play and I might have wanted to think about it for a second. But when I looked down the field, the official was all the way at the other end and there were only about four or five seconds left on the clock and I only had a couple seconds to get there. So I didn't do it.
"Hindsight is 20/20, but I still would have went for it on fourth down. I would have called a different play, knowing what I know now, but I still would have went for it on fourth down."
"Scotty Robinson has a foot injury and he will be doubtful for this weekend. Kevin Gidrey is having surgery on his thumb, but I think they'll be able to cast him up and he'll be able to play. We've got a number of bumps and bruises and ankle injuries. Both Jerek Hewett and Leon Best will be very limited in practice this week, which is a little bit concerning, considering what we're about to walk into with the passing game of Houston.
"We've got a couple of preventative x-rays going on yesterday and today to make sure that it's just some soreness and not any broken bones. That's how we found T.J. Lee's broken foot. He finished the game, it was a very emotional game and he was pushing through some pain, and then he got the x-ray and found the broken bone. We'll keep our fingers crossed with where we are."
"We're excited to have the opportunity to come back home. We've played three of our first four on the road, so we're excited to come back here and play in front of our home crowd. Especially with the environment that we had the last time we were here, which was absolutely exciting.
"I say it all the time, but when we win you have 24-hours to celebrate the victory and when you lose, you have 24-hours to mourn the loss. It's time to put this one behind us. It doesn't make the knot in your stomach go away, you can't do that until you play again, but it's time that we move on as a football program and team. We've got to turn and get ourselves up off the ground, brush ourselves off, put on the film and start to go from there. We've got to keep moving forward. We have another opponent this week and we're excited to get back into the conference race.
"Houston is coming in here as a 1-3 football team. But as I said last week, you can never look at records and say, `These people are good and these people are not very good.' Houston has lost to Oklahoma State, and has lost their last two games by three points each. They are a very explosive offensive football team. Last year, we had a heck of a battle with them down there, when they ended up missing two field goals in the fourth quarter for us to preserve a close win.
"When I look at this football team, I think it's scary what they're doing offensively right now. I've really been impressed with how Kevin Sumlin has come and they really haven't missed a beat offensively."
On Houston's Offense:
"Their personnel really matches what they're doing offensively. When you look at their offensive line, their two tackles are 6'8" 320 pounds and 6'4" 310 pounds. Those are their bookends of that line. They're all very experienced as they have three starters returning on their line and another who was a starter before he sat out last year due to a knee injury. They're very seasoned, experienced and good at what they do. I believe they've thrown the ball over 200 times, about 240 times, and have only given up five sacks. That's about one sack in every 50 plays, which is a very nice job.
"They get rid of the ball in a hurry. It's the same quarterback that we played again last year. He's very talented, has a quick release and has a great grasp on what they're doing. Their tight end is their lead target, and he's only about 240 pounds. He's more like a big receiver than a big, bulky tight end. He runs very good routes and is their leading receiver. Their outside receivers are very athletic but they're not as tall. But they're about 5'9," 5'10" and very fast and explosive. They have very much a ball-control, passing game.
"They're averaging 526 yards of offense, throwing for 400 yards and 5.0 yards a rush in a game. They're also averaging 82 plays, compared to our average of 65 plays a game. When you look at their offense, it's really scary. When you watch them play on the offensive side of the ball, you really wonder how they lose a game. They're converting about 60 percent of their third-downs and they're a very efficient football team with their passing game. They're really good at what they do.
"It's really scary when you look at what they have returning. They have a new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who's from Texas Tech and I had an opportunity to go down there and visit with him when I was at South Carolina. I'm really impressed with what he does, his knowledge of the passing game and the way they do it. I think our defense is really going to be challenged, especially on the back end this weekend."
On Houston's Defense:
"John Skladany is an excellent football coach. He was the defensive coordinator last year at UCF and we had an opportunity to go against him. I think with what they do and who they return they have a very good defensive football team.
"Their strength is really their defensive front and their secondary. They return three of their four starters on the front, led by Phillip Hunt, who has 20 sacks in his career. He's very aggressive. Their two defensive ends are definitely the strength of their four inside. But it's probably what they get the most work on in practice every day, going up against their offense. They can come off the edge, disrupt a lot of things coming off the edge and make a lot of things happen. Their middle linebacker, Cody Lubojasky, has 41 starts in his career and they are very experienced there.
"The back end is probably where they're the most talented. They have great skill players, speed and athleticism. Their two safeties, Jamal Jones and Kenneth Fontenette, are very active. They'll come up and be very physical and they're two of the leading tacklers on the team.
"They also return their kicker, punter and deep snapper. I think their special teams are very solid in what they do and we're going to see a very traditional kicking game from them. They're very good at what they do.
"I think this is going to be a challenge for us. We knew it was going to be a dog fight down there a year ago and we're certainly excited to have the opportunity to come back home and play in front of our home crowd and take advantage of the 12th man that we have here."
On Preparing For Conference USA Shootouts:
"I think some guys are really going to have to step up. The more you throw the ball, the more guys you have running around. Since T.J. Lee is out, you saw Darryl Freeney a little bit more last week. I thought Freeney played extremely hard, but is he ready to be there all the time and run all over the field? I'm not really sure yet. But he's gaining some experience.
"I think we need to continue to bring D.J. McFadden along and Alex Taylor got his first reps. But we're going to need to continue to develop our depth, especially at the wide receiver position.
"The first three games were a little different, because you want to make sure you're playing solid defense and playing fundamentally sound on offense. You punt the ball away and play more of a field position game. This week, it's definitely going to have to be more wide open because you have to do what you have to do to put some points on the board. You know they're going to score some points when they have the ball. You have to take the approach that you want to score some points, but you also want to keep their offense off the field.
"Twenty five percent of their drives are 10 plays or more, so they're not completely a quick-strike offense, which is unique. Normally when you have a team throwing for as many yards as they are, they drop back and throw the ball twice before they are in the end zone. They've done a really nice job controlling the ball. Their quarterback helps them do that because he is very patient. If he gets any pressure, because they have so many guys out in routes, he'll be able to drop it off to the back standing on the line of scrimmage and he'll get three or four yards; that's more or less their running game. They do a real nice job of it.
"It's going to be important to put points up, but we have to make sure it's not a three-and-out mindset. If all you do is punt against these people, you're going to lose; you have to turn and score some points. You can't just spread it out and go pass, pass, pass, trying to score a lot of points and then go three-and-out. That just puts their team right back out on the field. It's going to have to be a balance.
"I think we're going to have to play a lot more people than we have been, which is going to expose that depth issue, especially with guys like Cotton, Best and Lee being out."
On Differences In Houston's Offense From Last Year To This Year:
"They're probably doing it a little bit differently because last year with Donnie Avery and Anthony Alridge they were running the ball more. They're putting a little bit more of that burden on the quarterback this year. He's finding those check downs and that becomes the running game this year. They're throwing a lot of screens, spreading people out and covering down.
"As soon as you cover down, they're handing the ball off and that's how they're averaging 5.0 yards per rush and about 130 yards per game, but they're also throwing 400 yards per game. They're taking some pressure off the running back position and putting some more of it on the quarterback this year, but they're still running the ball some too. They threw the ball 50 times last week in a three point game, so it's not like they were down 25 points and throwing it every down. They don't maybe have the one or two guys who you know are going to carry the bulk of the load like they had last year. This year they're just spreading the ball around a lot more and a lot of guys are in the mix."
On How To Attack Houston:
"You have to keep the ball in front of you because this game is going to come down to space and tackling guys in the open space. You can use the nickel package and maybe even a little bit of the dime package, where you take a defensive lineman out and put in an extra defensive back to cover down. What you gain in one, you give up in another, though. You lose some pass rush, but you gain a little bit in your pass coverage.
"Their quarterback does not force the ball into coverage, though. If it's not there and you only rush two or three, he's going to stand back there, hold the ball and move around. He's athletic, he's not necessarily a runner, but he's going to stand back there and buy time, break contain and that's where your coverage breaks down. I don't think you can approach it in just one mindset, because they can turn and run the ball."
On The Impact Of The N.C. State Loss To The Team:
"It's hard for me to get a good feel for that right now. We've played four very emotional football games to this point. They're very down and it's very somber and quite for this team right now. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, though, especially the way we executed in some crunch times. Maybe that's what we needed to really get our focus zeroed in.
"I thought they were ready to play emotionally. Mentally they were pretty good too. In the first half we played pretty hard and physical. There were a lot of positives. I'm not sure if they're worn out mentally or if it's because of all the bowls and polls out there and our bubble being burst a little bit. We have certainly tried to really focus on what we have to do within the lines.
"A week ago at Tulane we had the opportunity to win the football game, and those guys went out there and made some key plays down the stretch and we won the game. We had the same opportunities in this game; we just weren't able to make those same plays that we did the week before. I give N.C. State a lot of credit. They made the plays they had to down the stretch. We had our chances on the goal line and they had their chances on the goal line, and they made a couple of big plays. They did a nice job making the plays they had to in order to win.
"I met with the juniors and seniors for about 30 minutes yesterday and talked about where we are, what we need to do, where we need to go from here and what our options are. I told them we havve three options. We can sulk and put our heads in the sand and give up because our bubble burst a little bit. If you look at UTEP, they were in first place in the West Division a year ago when we played them in game seven. We came back and scored right at the end and beat them in overtime and they didn't win a game the rest of the season. How we respond to this is going to be critical.
"The second option is to work hard, but just go through the motions and let the little things slip. We can win a couple more games the rest of the way, play it close and maybe go to another bowl game. The last option is that we can make up our mind that we didn't like how we played and we can watch the film and correct our mistakes. We're going to get better and continue to strive at a championship level. Those are really the only three options we have. I don't think winning any one game is the important aspect this early in the season. I think how you react to that win or loss is much more important, this early in the season, than the game itself. We lost the battle, but we have to make sure that we don't lose the war. We have to turn and we have to go forward, those are our only choices."