NEW ORLEANS — Amid rumors that he was returning to Minnesota to coach either the Golden Gophers or the Vikings, Lou Holtz recently received a five-year contract extension to remain at Notre Dame. He has since extended his job description to include defensive coordinator, or as Holtz said Tuesday:
"Heck, with some of the problems we've had on defense, I couldn't have gotten anyone else to do it."
More fact than facetious? Perhaps.
In a 9-3 season, the Notre Dame defense has been battered and belittled to the point that a turnaround in the face of tonight's formidable challenge in the Sugar Bowl game would seem to require more than the luck of the Irish--or the prodding of Holtz.
"Some of the young guys have been intimidated by his shouting, but the key thing is that he has given us a sense of urgency," linebacker Demetrius DeBose said, choosing urgency instead of emergency .
Defensive tackle Troy Ridgley seemed to lean toward the latter.
"It's in our hands," Ridgley said of the defense. "If we don't play with a new intensity and attitude, we're going to be embarrassed. I mean, this is the fastest, most explosive team we've played. We face the prospect of being blown off the field."
Ranked 18th in the Associated Press poll and here, some say, only because of their tradition and financial impact, the Irish are 5 1/2-point underdogs to the No. 3-ranked Florida Gators, 10-1 and the Southeastern Conference champions.
The challenge for Notre Dame? To stop:
--Junior quarterback Shane Matthews, who passed for a school-record 3,130 yards and an SEC-record 28 touchdowns.
--Sophomore running back Errict Rhett, who led the SEC in rushing with 1,109 yards and was the first back in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards and also catch 40 passes.
Rhett will start the Sugar Bowl on the bench, watching senior running back Willie McClendon. Coach Steve Spurrier said he is disciplining Rhett for "some unexcused attendance problems," but Rhett will still get considerable playing time.
A 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher?
"They're too good to shut down or shut out," said Rod Smith, Notre Dame's free safety. "We have to hope we can contain them well enough to give our offense a chance."
The Notre Dame offense, built on the diversity of quarterback Rick Mirer and the power running of Tony Brooks and Jerome Bettis, awakened the echoes by scoring a school-record 426 points.
But eight of Notre Dame's 12 opponents scored 20 or more points, and the last three averaged 37.3 during a harrowing span in which the Irish lost to Tennessee, 35-34, after leading, 31-7; were routed by Penn State, 35-13; and beat Hawaii, 48-42.
Now come the Gators, who beat Tennessee by 17 points. They averaged 32.8 points and 457.1 yards a game and ranked fourth in the nation with an average of 308.5 passing yards.
The Irish were 60th in pass defense and 73rd overall.
Holtz took over the defense when Gary Darnell resigned on Dec. 3 to join the Texas staff.
"The intensity, effort and attitude have all become better," secondary coach Ron Cooper said. "I'm not saying it wasn't there under Coach Darnell, but Lou's involvement has made us turn it up a notch."
Two other questions involve the quarterbacks, both of whom have sore throats, a potential play-calling problem in the noisy Superdome:
--Matthews had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Dec. 3. Some swelling remains, but he is 90% recovered, he said.
--Mirer, a junior, could be playing his last game for Notre Dame. He is considering the NFL draft but will go, he said, only if assured of being a first-round choice. He expects to decide in the next week or two, and hopes to make the Sugar Bowl his personal showcase.
His team, expected to compete for a national championship, will be playing for pride and respect. The Irish also will be playing for $3.6 million. Some believe that they strong-armed ABC-TV and the Sugar Bowl to receive an undeserved invitation.
Linebacker DuBose, who has been asked by Holtz to become leader of the defense, said the criticism is part of the price for playing at Notre Dame.
"You lose three games at Notre Dame and it's the worst thing that could have happened," he said. "Somewhere else, 9-3 would be a great season. None of us are happy about the year we've had, but we come here with a great tradition and a chance to answer the doubters. I don't think we have to apologize."
Florida has motivation of its own.
The Gators believe that they should have been in the 1991 Sugar Bowl game, when they were 9-2 but banned from bowl competition because of an NCAA violation that occurred under former coach Galen Hall. They think they have not received the respect that their 19-3 record of the last two years (they lost only to Syracuse in 1991) deserves, and they have an outside shot at a national championship--but only if they beat Notre Dame while Miami loses in the Orange Bowl and Washington loses in the Rose Bowl.