Oct 5, 2002
By TOM COYNE
AP Sports Writer
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (AP) – The No. 9 Fighting Irish kept their unbeaten season going with their most convincing win yet by scoring 21 points in the span of 3:13 late in the third quarter to break open a close game and beat Stanford 31-7 Saturday.
It started with a pair of touchdowns 24 seconds apart as Rashon Powers-Neal scored on a 3-yard run and Shane Walton intercepted a pass – his fifth in five games – and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. Courtney Watson added another 34-yard interception return for a score 1:47 later as the Irish opened a 24-7 lead.
“Everything really seemed to come together,” Irish coach Tyrone Willngham said.
Willingham – who was Stanford’s coach for the past seven years – joins Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Jesse Harper as the only full-time Notre Dame coaches to open 5-0 in their first seasons at the school.
Notre Dame already has matched its win total from last season, and Willingham has his longest winning streak since Stanford won its last five games of the 1996 season.
Stanford (1-3) is off to its worst start since opening 1998 with one win in its first nine games. The Cardinal, who gave up 65 points in a loss to Arizona State a week earlier, have given up 96 points in two weeks, its worst performance since allowing 98 points in 1998 in a 63-28 loss to Oregon and 35-17 loss to Notre Dame.
The Irish defense held Stanford to 61 yards rushing, including just 2 yards in the second half.
All I want to be is the team that plays the best on the next Saturday afternoon. That’s all I want.Tyrone Willingham
Stanford coach Buddy Teevens said the two turnovers late in the third quarter were too much for the Cardinal to overcome. “All of a sudden, you’re almost out of the ballgame,” he said.
Watson’s score was the fourth of the season by the Notre Dame defense. The Irish offense has eight touchdowns and Notre Dame’s special teams have scored twice.
“We’ve been having great defensive plays all year,” Willingham said.
The momentum began to swing Notre Dame’s way when defensive tackle Darrell Campbell sacked Stanford quarterback Chris Lewis at the Stanford 3-yard line for an 11-yard loss. The Irish scored their first touchdown on their next possession.
“I think that’s what really separated the game,” Willingham said. “There was a surge of energy everywhere.”
Notre Dame had a season-high 249 yards rushing, and Powers-Neal gained 108 on 13 carries. Ryan Grant, who scored on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter, finished with 103 on 18 carries.
The rushing game took some pressure off Irish quarterback Pat Dillingham, a former walk-on making his first start because of a shoulder injury to Carlyle Holiday.
“A QB’s best friend is the run game,” Dillingham said.
Tryone Willingham pumps his fist as he leaves the field.
Dillingham played steadily and didn’t make a lot of mistakes. He made a few bad throws, including one interception, and had a fumble that Notre Dame recovered. He played well, enough, however.
“I think what they asked him to do was play within his strengths. They didn’t ask him to make big plays,” Teevens said.
Dillingham, who grew up five minutes from Stanford, was 14-of-27 for 129 yards. Holiday, who injured his shoulder two weeks ago against Michigan State, warmed up before the game and appeared to be moving with no signs of pain, but he never got in the game.
Lewis, who struggled against Arizona State last week, was 20-of-42 for 209 yards with three interceptions.
“Turnovers really killed us,” Teevens said.
The Irish overcame three missed field goals and 10 penalties, including one that wiped out a 92-yard punt return by Vontez Duff. That penalty also kept alive Stanford’s lone scoring drive, as Lewis connected with Teyo Johnson on a 14-yard TD.
Stanford players lined up to talk with their former coach and assistants after the game.
“It was hard to see them this way after a loss,” Stanford running back Kerry Carter said.
Willingham said he encouraged his ex-players.
“What I would say to them is to pick it up as they go through the year,” he said.
Asked whether he thinks Notre Dame is one of the nation’s best teams, Willingham said he doesn’t think about that.
“All I want to be is the team that plays the best on the next Saturday afternoon. That’s all I want.”