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There's Willingham and a Way for Irish

Nonconference: Notre Dame scores an offensive touchdown and improves to 3-0 with 25-23 victory over Michigan.

September 15, 2002|BILL DWYRE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Chapter Three of the Tyrone Willingham story continued to be suitable for youngsters' bedtime reading. Yet another happy ending.

The new coach of the Notre Dame football team, not the first choice of the good priests here when he was hired to take over the debris of predecessor Bob Davie nor a particularly inspired solution in the minds of many of the demanding Irish alumni who make big noise and write big checks, is now 3-0 and heading toward a top 10 ranking.

The mysteriously soft-spoken Willingham, who left a great job on the Farm at Stanford to come to the Zoo at South Bend, guided his lightly regarded Fighting Irish to a surprising 25-23 victory over No. 7 Michigan here Saturday.

The game attracted the usual 80,795 on a cloudy, humid afternoon. That marked the 163rd consecutive sellout at Notre Dame Stadium, and when the game ended moments after Shane Walton had made his second huge play with a clinching interception, a sizable portion of that sellout crowd poured onto the field. They surrounded the Irish players, celebrating at midfield with gold helmets held high in one hand, and created a scene that was reminiscent of, well, when they used to win a lot around here.

The scene was so wild that Willingham, asked afterward what he thought as he completed a postgame TV interview on the field and looked up at what was going on, said, "Help."

It is this sort of understated approach to one of the more overstated jobs in American sports that has both dazzled and bewildered Irish fans. The mandate of this job has always been equally divided between winning a lot and talking a lot. Think Lou Holtz. Rockne. Even Gerry Faust, who did the latter a lot better than the former.

Willingham speaks softly and, apparently, carries an inspirational big stick with his players. Notre Dame came into this game with two victories, but Maryland was not as strong as last year's bowl group and Purdue won't be used a lot in the same sentence this season with the initials BCS.

But Michigan was different. The Wolverines also entered this game 2-0, but with a No. 7 national ranking, 13 spots above the Irish.

Couple that with the fact that Notre Dame had won two games without scoring an offensive touchdown--287 days since the last Irish offensive touchdown last Dec. 1--and it was clear that much was on the line for the Willingham regime.

The Irish took care of that story line quickly. Willingham sent quarterback Carlyle Holiday back to pass on the first two plays of the game. On the second, he found wide receiver Maurice Stovall for 41 yards and nine plays later, and less than five minutes into the game, Ryan Grant ran two yards for a touchdown and the monkey was off Willingham's back.

In the press box, the public address announcer intoned: "That is an OFFENSIVE touchdown for the University of Notre Dame."

That done, a football game broke out.

Michigan tied the score, 7-7, when Holiday threw an ill-advised pass into the flat that the Wolverines' Marlin Jackson turned into a 19-yard interception and touchdown.

It was shortly after this that Michigan made the first of two questionable plays that created the eventual margin of victory.

The first was by offensive tackle Courtney Morgan, a 300-pound junior from Los Angeles and Westchester High. With his quarterback back to throw in his end zone, and Notre Dame end Justin Tuck drawing a bead on John Navarre, Morgan reached out and grabbed Tuck. His only chance was the officials not seeing, because if they did, holding in the end zone is an automatic safety.

The officials saw it, and Notre Dame led, 9-7. And the ensuing post-safety punt helped Notre Dame's field position so that a fumble a few minutes later led to a scoring quarterback draw by Holiday and a 16-7 halftime lead.

Michigan fought back to a 17-16 lead, getting its big chance when Arnaz Battle, the quarterback turned wide receiver, fumbled a kickoff return on his 32-yard line.

But the feast-or-famine Irish, now acting like some sort of offensive scoring machine, cranked up two long pass plays to Omar Jenkins, of 29 yards and then 47, and Notre Dame, which hadn't trailed for one moment this season until Michigan caught up, was back on top in exactly 2:03. Grant, the sophomore running back who had his best game with 143 yards, scored his second touchdown from three yards out, making the Irish lead 22-17. It stayed that way when Willingham went for two and Holiday was sacked.

Soon, the Wolverines made their second questionable play, this one by Coach Lloyd Carr, who declined a holding penalty that might have forced a 56-yard field goal.

Carr chose to force fourth down, and Nick Setta connected on the 46-yarder that made it 25-17.

Carr said he made his decision because "a touchdown would have put us out of the game," and that he thought Setta "would have made it from 56, anyway."

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