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Willingham, Irish Golden in Opener

College football: Notre Dame impresses in coach's historic debut, dominating No. 21 Maryland, 22-0.


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — All that could be seen of Tyrone Willingham was his sinewy arm holding up the golden trophy.

It is not a trophy any Fighting Irish coach or player dreams of possessing, but in its symbolism, at this moment, it seemed almost as good as a national championship bauble.

On the night of his first game as the first African American head coach at Notre Dame, Willingham allowed himself to smile, but not too much, to hold up his arm, but not too high, to clench a fist, but not too tightly.

Unranked Notre Dame upset No. 21 Maryland, 22-0, in the 20th and final Kickoff Classic football game Saturday night in front of 72,903 at the Meadowlands. The majority were curious Fighting Irish rooters, eager to watch and critique the newest Fighting Irish coach.

What they saw was a team that seemed certain in what it was doing. What they saw was junior quarterback Carlyle Holiday confident in the plays that were called and in the way he was asked to both throw and scramble.

What they saw was a defense sturdy in its technique, seldom fooled by the Maryland option or left flat-footed by Maryland speed, one that allowed only 16 yards rushing and sacked Maryland quarterbacks four times.

They saw five field goals and a punt returned for a touchdown, three interceptions by Notre Dame players, no lost fumbles. There were too many penalties (11 for 80 yards), but those could be excused even by demanding Notre Dame alumni as the result of a new coach teaching a new system to a team still shaking off the criticism of a year ago.

Willingham would not share his heart with the world after a game in which his Irish outgained Maryland, a 10-2 team a year ago, 356 yards to 133. He would not wear his emotions on his sleeve after Holiday had completed 17 of 27 passes for 226 yards. All during the game, the coach stood on the sideline protected by his own arc of silence, as sacred as the two-yard safety zone allowed for punt returners.

For the head coach of Notre Dame--no matter his race and no matter his length of service, no matter his past successes or the promise of future brilliance--is allowed no honeymoon, no grace period to find his voice, to implant his vision on the program.

So when Willingham, a solitary, straight-backed man with an expressionless face, chose to try a 56-yard field goal instead of going for a first down on fourth and one on Notre Dame's first possession of the 2002 season, the Notre Dame fans at the Meadowlands booed.

The ones around the country, the subway alums who clog the Internet message boards and chat rooms, they were probably booing too, certain that this serious, conservative coach would make their future one of safety and boredom instead of gutsy risk-taking and chill-bump thrills.

The field-goal try was missed, but not by much. And then the Fighting Irish kicker, Nicholas Setta, ended up setting a Kickoff Classic record with five field goals. He never missed another--from 51 yards, 32 yards, 18 yards, 46 yards, 24 yards. He was named the game's most valuable player and he gave his coach a playful rub on the head on the way to the locker room.

Vontez Duff became the first man in the 20-year history of this game to return a punt for a touchdown--76 yards of celebratory running early in the third quarter that made a tenuous 9-0 lead an authoritative 16-0--and there was no more booing. Cornerback Shane Walton set a school record with three interceptions and there was lots of cheering.

When asked what this occasion felt like, Willingham answered simply, "It was a football game. All football games are important." He would not allow anyone to make this into anything historical. He would only allow anyone to make this a single step in a long process of building and improvement.

He was quick to point out that Maryland's biggest offensive threat, tailback Bruce Perry, a Doak Walker Award finalist last year, was out with an injured groin. He asked to not make too much of the shutout even though he had just become the first Notre Dame coach since Terry Brennan in 1954 to earn a shutout in his first game.

Many of the same players who participated in a dispiriting 5-6 season last year that ended in the firing of coach Bob Davie--players who always seemed tentative and without faith in what they were doing--were now operating Willingham's West Coast offense and basic defensive principles with authority.

"We have a clear idea of what is expected of us," said Holiday, who caused Willingham to exhibit his only emotion of the evening after a careless attempt to throw away a ball cost his team an intentional grounding penalty. Willingham yelled at Holiday. Then, just before the quarterback went back on the field, Willingham patted his back.

"Coach Willingham has a real vision," said Walton, who had eight tackles. "He's even-keeled and demanding and we know what is expected on every play."

The coach had already left the room. He was standing alone in a hallway, staring at the statistics.

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