Oct. 4, 2002
by Bo Rottenborn
On Jan. 1, 2002, Tyrone Willingham was hired as head football coach at Notre Dame. In just his fifth game with the Irish, Willingham will meet Stanford, where he spent each of the last seven years guiding the Cardinal program to new heights.
In Palo Alto, Willingham’s teams played in four bowl games, won the 1999 Pacific-10 Conference title, and made Stanford’s first trip to the Rose Bowl in 28 years. The two-time Pac-10 coach of the year has had similar success thus far in his new job, helping Notre Dame to its first 4-0 start since 1993.
Meanwhile, at Stanford, Buddy Teevens, who succeeded Willingham as head coach, has implemented the offensive system he used as assistant offensive coordinator at Florida in each of the last three years, leading to some fireworks unusual even for the traditionally high-scoring Pac-10. Teevens, who came to Stanford with 12 years of head-coaching experience at Maine, Dartmouth and Tulane, and the Cardinal enter this weekend with a 1-2 mark.
Stanford opened the season with a road game against Boston College and took a 27-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter only to see the Eagles put up 17 points in the final period. With less than two minutes remaining, Boston College moved 65 yards down the field to score the game-winning touchdown with 36 seconds remaining, assuring a 34-27 victory.
A week later, Stanford returned home and broke open a 28-26 game with 35 unanswered points for a 63-26 win over San Jose State. The output was the most by the Cardinal in a game since 1981 and the most at home since 1975. In the game, Stanford managed 563 yards of total offense, as well as six rushing touchdowns.
After a bye week, Arizona State turned the tables on the Cardinal, exploding for a 65-24 victory after Stanford had cut the Sun Devils’ lead to 14-13. The teams combined for 953 yards of offense, but the difference in the game was in taking care of the ball. The Cardinal turned it over seven times on the afternoon, while Arizona State surrendered possession just once.
Stanford enters the game having turned the ball over 15 times – an average of five per game. The Irish have forced 13 turnovers in 2002, while giving up the ball on six occasions.
Notre Dame is coming off a bye week following three consecutive games decided in the fourth quarter by a touchdown or less. But the Irish have been victorious in each contest thus far, due in large part to outstanding defensive play and an innate ability to come up with big plays at opportune times.
In Kickoff Classic XX it was Vontez Duff’s 76-yard punt return in the third quarter for the lone touchdown of the game that propelled Notre Dame to a 22-0 blanking of Maryland. Duff was the difference once again vs. Purdue, grabbing an interception and taking it 33 yards to the endzone to break a tie game in the fourth quarter of Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory. A week later, it was cornerback Shane Walton’s breakup of a pass on an attempted two-point conversion and his later interception that iced the 25-23 triumph over Michigan.
The last time out, Notre Dame found two new players to perform heroics: sophomore quarterback Pat Dillingham and receiver Arnaz Battle. After the second Jeff Smoker-to-Charles Rogers touchdown pass of the fourth quarter gave Michigan State a 17-14 lead, Dillingham, playing in his second collegiate game after starter Carlyle Holiday suffered a shoulder injury, found Battle on a short pass that the senior playmaker turned into a 60-yard touchdown. The score with just over a minute remaining in the game allowed the Irish to break a five-game losing streak to the Spartans.
Notre Dame’s defensive play also has been integral in keeping the team within striking distance of the game-winning big play. The Irish are ranked among the top 14 in the country in all four defensive categories. Opponents are managing just over 14 points a game and have put up only 17 points total in the first half.
Perhaps most impressive for Notre Dame has been its ability to shut down the opposition’s running attack. The Irish are surrendering fewer than 77 yards a game on the ground – good enough for sixth-best in the NCAA. Maryland, which was 11th in the nation in rushing last year, managed just 16 rushing yards on 33 carries against Notre Dame, but is averaging just under 190 rushing yards per game since. Michigan has rushed for 172 yards per game in each of the four games not against the Irish, while amassing just 91 against Notre Dame. The Spartans, meanwhile, have averaged nearly 198 yards in their other four games in ’02, but could muster only 53 against the Irish.
The front seven of the Notre Dame defense has been mainly responsible for this stingy performance. The defensive line consists of three veterans who have been instrumental in dominating the line of scrimmage. Fifth-year senior end Ryan Roberts is one of the most prolific pass rushers to put on an Irish uniform. He has 14 career sacks to his credit, including four in as many games this season. Senior Darrell Campbell is in his second year as a starter on the Irish line and 10 times in his career has stopped the opponent for a loss of yardage. Nose guard Cedric Hilliard started each of the final five games of last season and has been the anchor of the line in ’02, with half of his 10 tackles coming behind the line of scrimmage. Hilliard also has caused a fumble and blocked a field goal this season.
The Notre Dame linebacking corps has exceeded expectations this season, after the starting trio in the season opener had zero starts and only seven career tackles between them at the time. Junior Mike Goolsby is the leading tackler for the Irish, registering 30 stops thus far this season, including six tackles for loss, after managing only five career tackles prior to 2002. Classmate Derek Curry has 13 tackles and recovered a fourth-quarter fumble against Purdue. Sophomore Brandon Hoyte hadn’t seen any collegiate action prior to this year, but earned starts in the first two games in place of the injured Courtney Watson. Hoyte had a team-high, six solo tackles versus Maryland and shared the team lead with eight total stops. Watson, who missed the first two contests with a viral infection, has returned with a vengeance, regaining the form that saw him make 76 tackles a year ago, tops for returning Irish players. The senior inside linebacker had a game-high 15 tackles against Michigan State and is already the fourth-leading Irish tackler in ’02.
For Stanford, it has been the offensive side of the ball that is the more dangerous this season. The Cardinal is averaging 38 points and 430 yards of total offense.
As was the case with Teevens’ offense at Florida, this year’s Cardinal attack is powered by a high-octane aerial game. Redshirt junior Chris Lewis figured to be the main signalcaller heading into the season after having served as a backup and sometime-starter over the past two seasons. The veteran of 17 collegiate games heading into this season, led the Cardinal to wins over No. 4 Oregon and No. 5 UCLA a year ago. Lewis, who threw for a then-career-high 242 yards in his second career start in 2000 against Notre Dame, missed this year’s opener against Boston College after being suspended by Teevens for making personal phone calls on athletic department phones.
Starting in place of Lewis on week one was redshirt freshman Kyle Matter, who was efficient in his first college game, completing 17 of 27 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown. A week later against San Jose State, Lewis started and was 12-of-22 for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns before he was injured late in the first half and had to leave the game. Matter was called on again and was impressive for the second straight week, leading the Cardinal to five straight touchdowns in the second half. The rookie completed seven of eight passes for 123 yards and managed a touchdown both through the air and on the ground for the second week in a row.
Against Arizona State, Matter again replaced Lewis after the starter was intercepted on three occasions.
Heading into this weekend, Matter ranks 12th in the nation among NCAA Division I quarterbacks in pass efficiency. He has completed over 63 percent of his attempts for 453 yards. Lewis, meanwhile, has 275 yards through the air this season and 2,731 in his career.
The favorite target of the two Cardinal quarterbacks has been sophomore Teyo Johnson, who has made 16 receptions in three games this year for 245 yards and four touchdowns.
Junior flanker Luke Powell and senior fullback Casey Moore are also dangerous players for Stanford. Powell was the team’s leading receiver a year ago and finished second in the nation in punt-return average (16.0), while Moore had a career-high 116 rushing yards against Arizona State, including 113 in the first half.