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Seminole Moment for the 8-0 Irish

Notre Dame dominates Florida State on the road, 34-24, and proves it is a serious contender.

October 27, 2002|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Notre Dame football has gone from a luck story to a truck story, in this case a runaway, leprechaun-driven, 18-wheeler.

Say what you want about early-season escape acts against Purdue and Michigan State, quarterback Carlyle Holiday's phantom touchdown to beat Michigan, that crud-of-a-dud victory over Pittsburgh and even the fact the Irish trailed Stanford, 7-3, late in the third quarter.

What No. 6 Notre Dame is now, after Saturday's 34-24 victory over No. 11 Florida State in front of 84,106 at Doak Campbell Stadium, is 8-0 and a national-title contender.

The echoes are not only awake, they're chewing No-Doz.

The Irish did not merely bus into Tallahassee and leave with a victory, they came in as underdogs and left Florida State shell-shocked.

The Notre Dame team that finished 5-6 only last year is a myth, that George O'Leary hiring debacle already a faded memory.

The Irish, 10-point underdogs against a 5-2 team, so thoroughly dominated a formidable foe on the road they removed all doubt about their top-10 legitimacy.

"You would think it would," Irish linebacker Courtney Watson said of the victory afterward, "but who knows?"

Don't look for Notre Dame to abandon its one-game-at-a-time mantra, if only because players have learned to mimic the school's one-word-at-a-time coach, Tyrone Willingham, who almost playfully wondered out loud Saturday whether his team would be favored at home next week against Boston College.

In fact, the first words gleeful players saw when they entered the visitors' locker room at Doak Campbell Stadium were as succinct as a Willingham sentence: "BEAT BOSTON COLLEGE."

Yet, there was no denying the weight of the victory Saturday. Even Irish Athletic Director Kevin White described it as "a Notre Dame moment."

The Irish once again won by leaning on their defense, only this time it was Florida State they were leaning on.

Any question about whether Notre Dame meant business was answered on the game's first play from scrimmage, when Holiday teamed up with Arnaz Battle on a 65-yard touchdown pass, a play Holiday and Battle had rehearsed all week.

"We knew the first call on Tuesday in practice," Holiday said. "We thought about it in our rooms Friday night."

The play immediately dictated the terms and put Florida State on the defensive. The Seminoles fought back to make it a 10-10 game in the third quarter before the Notre Dame defense and special teams, once again, blew the game open in what seemed like seconds.

Watson started the onslaught when his interception and 21-yard return of a Chris Rix pass set up Nick Setta's go-ahead, 35-yard field goal.

On Florida State's next possession, safety Glenn Earl jarred the ball loose from Rix, with Shane Walton falling on the fumble at the Florida State two. From there, Ryan Grant ran for the score to make it 20-10.

On the ensuing kickoff, Carlos Pierre-Antoine stripped the ball from Leon Washington with Brandon Hoyte recovering at the Florida State 17.

That led to a 16-yard touchdown pass from Holiday to Omar Jenkins, who beat defender B.J. Dean on a corner-post pattern.

Before Bobby Bowden could blink, a 10-10 game was suddenly 27-10, and the Florida State coach was completely, well, bumfuzzled.

You heard it right.

"They kept us bumfuzzled all day with their alignments and things," Bowden said.

With Notre Dame, you can't chalk things up to luck anymore because the Irish are doing this to teams every week.

"So, just count us in the club," Bowden said. "They're serial killers. They kill everybody the same way. No change."

Moments later, Florida State officials distributed a brief statement with Bowden's apology.

"I used an analogy I should not have said, especially in the wake of recent events," Bowden said. "I certainly meant no disrespect."

Five of Notre Dame's victories this season have come by margins of eight points or fewer and most have turned on a staggering sequence of plays.

The Irish scored two touchdowns in an 11-second span in an early-season victory over Purdue and scored four touchdowns in 6:54 against Stanford to turn a 7-3 deficit into a 31-7 rout.

"I don't like the word 'opportunistic,' because we practice those things," Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer explained. "I think it's a sign of a good football team."

Saturday's final score did not do Notre Dame justice. The Irish dominated play from intermission to the final gun, extending its lead to 34-10 with 11:05 to play on Grant's 31-yard touchdown run.

The Seminoles scored two meaningless touchdowns in the final minutes to make it a 10-point game, but only after Bowden had pulled Rix and replaced him with Adrian McPherson. It was a move that, in Tallahassee, will only result in a quarterback controversy.

Florida State (5-3) has now lost home games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1986-87.

Willingham, as usual, discussed the win with all the emotion of a secretary reading minutes at a board meeting.

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