East Carolina coach Skip Holtz felt a sense of déjà vu as he looked at the Arkansas helmet displayed at the Liberty Bowl news conference Thursday afternoon in Memphis, Tenn.
Holtz felt like he should be an observer at the conference rather than a speaker.
"I can remember sitting in these press conferences admiring my father," said Holtz, whose father, Lou Holtz, coached Arkansas from 1977 to 1983.
East Carolina (9-4) will meet Arkansas (7-5) on Jan. 2 in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. The Razorbacks and strong-armed quarterback Ryan Mallett will present Skip Holtz with a different challenge from what Lou faced in bowl games as Arkansas' coach.
Lou had to stop Barry Switzer and Oklahoma's powerful rushing attack to win the Orange Bowl 31-6 at the conclusion of the 1977 season. In the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1980, Arkansas and Lou Holtz couldn't stop the wishbone as Alabama quarterback Steadman Shealy threw just seven passes in a 24-9 Crimson Tide win.
Skip Holtz's charge is to stop Arkansas' passing game. For the second time in two games, Holtz's East Carolina defense is facing a quarterback with excellent passing statistics.
In the Conference USA championship game last Saturday, the Pirates survived 38-32 despite 527 passing yards in 75 attempts by Houston quarterback Case Keenum - who leads the nation with 5,449 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes.
Now Mallett comes into the bowl game ranked sixth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing efficiency, behind Keenum, who is fifth. Mallett, a transfer from Michigan, has passed for 3,422 yards and 29 touchdowns, with seven interceptions.
"I see the ball in the air, more and more and more," Holtz said when asked to describe the matchup. "I see a great football team. I think it will be a heck of a challenge for us as a football program."
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino sounded primarily concerned about the East Carolina defense. The Pirates had two first-team All-Conference USA players on the defensive line in C.J. Wilson and Linval Joseph, and two more in the secondary in Van Eskridge and Emanuel Davis.
"You look at their defensive front," Petrino said. "They're so big and athletic and have won a lot of games because of the pressure they've put on the quarterback."
Arkansas did not play in a bowl game last season, and Petrino said the players and fans who are eagerly buying tickets are excited to be playing in the postseason this year. East Carolina is returning to the Liberty Bowl for the second straight season as Conference USA champion.
Kentucky defeated the Pirates 25-19 last season in Conference USA's third consecutive loss to a Southeastern Conference team in the bowl. Holtz hopes to break that streak but will have to endure another game against a potent passing attack.
"I think [facing Houston] was probably a great little prelude to what we're going to see in this bowl game as well," Holtz said, "a great quarterback with a very efficient passing football team."
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