Irish's Holtz bemoans 'problems' of 8-0 team


Lou Holtz, boasting a record of 74-18-1 in his seven-plus seasons at Notre Dame, has made an art form of poor-mouthing his football team.

So Holtz was completely in character yesterday when he portrayed Navy, a 35-point underdog in Philadelphia Saturday, as a formidable foe equipped with countless weapons, while calling his No. 2-ranked Fighting Irish "not a very good team."

Notre Dame (8-0) has trampled Michigan State, Stanford, Pitt, Brigham Young, and USC, while averaging 254 yards rushing per game.

After his team was blitzed, 31-13, Saturday in South Bend, Southern Cal coach John Robinson said: "We couldn't match their power, and I've always believed championship teams lead with power."

But Holtz offered reasons why his team is undeserving of such praise.

"We never expected to be 8-0 at this point, especially with our problems at quarterback," he said. "I'm not belittling my players or looking for people to say, 'He's winning with coaching, trickery and gadgetry.'

"But we don't execute fundamentally, and we have too many limitations on personnel to be considered an outstanding football team. Last year we knew how to block, and we had awfully good runners and blockers, and still didn't dominate games.

"Now when I look at us on film, I see we lack speed at halfback, tailback and inside linebacker. We've got problems with our drop ends, our third-down conversion rate has been poor and our punting game is a real disaster."

This is all part of Holtz's shtick.

"I know people accuse me of downplaying my team and building RTC up my opponent," he said. "But I tell my team before the season starts that it serves no purpose for me to say how great they are. If they're good, no one will have to tell them."

Holtz legitimately can point out how his offense was hurt by the loss of quarterback Rick Mirer and the backfield combination of Reggie Brooks and Jerome Bettis, all earning millions as high-profile NFL rookies.

Holtz's biggest challenge was finding a replacement for Mirer, a task that has evolved into a puzzling rotation of senior Kevin McDougal and junior Paul Failla.

Holtz is said to have preferred highly recruited freshman Ron Powlus, who reinjured his collarbone in preseason training. The job then went to McDougal, who played sparingly as Mirer's backup last year.

McDougal ran the option three times for touchdowns against Stanford and passed for more than 1,000 yards in guiding the Irish to seven victories before injuring his shoulder.

Failla -- who as a freshman heard Holtz scream, "Who gave this kid a scholarship?" -- ran the offense flawlessly against Southern Cal, mostly handing off to junior halfback Lee Becton, who accounted for 177 of the Irish's 303 yards on the ground.

Failla will be back on the bench Saturday. "McDougal is still my No. 1," Holtz said. "He didn't lose the job. He got hurt."

Becton is another player who has heard Holtz's sharp tongue. When the North Carolina native missed several early games with muscle pulls, Holtz said, "I didn't think he could run fast enough to pull a hamstring."

After bolting 70 yards for a touchdown against Southern Cal, Becton said: "I'm no Reggie Brooks, and I don't try to be. But you don't have to have breakaway speed to win games."

There is top-ranked Florida State next in line with a possible national championship at stake. But Holtz insists he has the Mids on his mind.

"We stick to the same routine every week, and our football team has stayed focused," he said. "I don't think there's any other thought on their minds except playing well against Navy in Philadelphia."

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