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Little Power but Lots of Glory for Irish

Nonconference: Defense again bails out struggling offense as Notre Dame beats Stanford, 31-7, and hits the big 5-0.

October 06, 2002|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame's "Return to Glory" campaign, backed by a prominent sports magazine, the New York Times computer poll and loads of T-shirt sales, appeared in tatters late in the third quarter with the home team trailing unranked Stanford by four points Saturday.

But then, almost like a movie, just when it seemed as if the breaks might beat the boys, Notre Dame scored four lightning-strike touchdowns in a span of 6:54 to turn a close game into a 31-7 rout before 80,795 at Notre Dame Stadium.

What can you say about the No. 9 Irish, who improved to 5-0 for the first time since 1993 and continue to give new meaning to the word "opportunism"?

The Notre Dame defense, holding down the football fort until the offense comes around--will it ever?--returned two second-half interceptions for touchdowns and set up the Irish's last score with a third interception.

Through five games, the Irish offense has scored more touchdowns than the defense but only barely, seven to five.

"We want to take over every game on defense," cornerback Vontez Duff said.

Stanford held a slender 7-3 lead late into the third quarter when the Irish offense finally got directions to the Stanford end zone, driving 57 yards in six plays and taking the lead on Rashon Powers-Neal's three-yard scoring run.

Then came the onslaught.

On Stanford's next possession, cornerback Shane Walton stepped in front of Chris Lewis' pass in the right flat and returned the interception 17 yards for a touchdown.

That made it a 17-7 game.

On Stanford's next possession, Lewis completed a second-down pass from his own 26 to tight end Alex Smith, but Notre Dame linebacker Courtney Watson ripped the ball out of Smith's arms and ran 34 yards for a score.

That put Notre Dame up, 24-7.

"Now," Watson said of his play, "you've got the stadium rocking."

Next, it was strong safety Gerome Sapp's turn. His interception of a Lewis pass with 14:54 left set up Notre Dame's last score, Ryan Grant's one-yard scoring run with 12:28 left.

In a matter of minutes, just under seven, the game was over.

"We hit a stretch in the third quarter when it all seemed to come together," Notre Dame Coach Tyrone Willingham said.

There was more coming together afterward, as Willingham, who coached Stanford for seven seasons before leaving to coach Notre Dame, stood near the end zone and hugged a succession of his former players.

Six former Stanford assistant coaches joined Willingham on the Notre Dame staff.

"Overall it was good to see them," Stanford tailback Kerry Carter said, "even though it was hard to see them this way after a tough loss."

You wouldn't have blamed a few Cardinal players if they whispered in his ear, "Wish you were back."

Stanford fell to 1-3 and appears to be nowhere near the 9-3 program that Willingham left behind.

Stanford Coach Buddy Teevens admitted that, in the third quarter, "the wheels kind of came off a bit."

You could call lucky some of what Notre Dame has done this season, winning its last three games before Saturday by seven points or fewer, but Willingham has no doubt brought a tenacity to the program that was lacking under Bob Davie.

Willingham's almost deadpan demeanor has served the Irish well in tight situations.

"We're never worried," said Powers-Neal, the sophomore tailback. "He stays calm so we stay calm. It rubs off."

Willingham knows there are miles to go before he sleeps.

Asked for his reaction at his team being 5-0, he said, "It's too early to have a reaction. We'll kindly take 5-0 and keep going."

Asked if he thought his team was one of the nation's best, he said, "I don't even have those thoughts."

The Irish still have issues, especially on offense. Pat Dillingham, a former walk-on, started the game for the injured Carlyle Holiday and played just well enough to win, completing 14 of 27 passes for 129 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception.

"We won, so I'm happy with it," Dillingham said.

The Irish ran the ball well, amassing 249 yards. Powers-Neal had 108 yards in 13 carries and Ryan Grant added 103 in 18, yet the offense generated only one touchdown on its own against a Stanford defense that allowed 65 points last week to Arizona State.

Holiday sat out Saturday's game with an injured left (non-throwing) shoulder, and Willingham wasn't saying afterward whether he would be ready for next week's game against Pittsburgh.

Despite the gap in the final score, there were plenty of knotted stomachs in the first half.

Vontez Duff thought he had scored on a 92-yard punt return, but the Irish were penalized for a personal foul committed against Stanford's long-snapper, allowing the Cardinal to retain possession at the Irish 37.

On second and eight, Stanford ran a trick play, sort of a wide-receiver version of the "Fumblerookskie," Lewis sandwiching the ball between the legs of Nick Sebes, who raced 21 yards around left end to the 14.

From there, Lewis hit Teyo Johnson on a slant pattern for a 14-yard scoring pass with 1:38 left in the first quarter to put Stanford up, 7-0.

Yet, it all worked out in the end, and is there anything better than being 5-0 at Notre Dame?

"Being 6-0," Powers-Neal said.

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