Nov. 22, 2002
By Bo Rottenborn
After nearly four years of service to the program, 35 seniors will suit up for the final time in Notre Dame Stadium this weekend in hopes of ending their home career with a win. This Irish class will be remembered for earning Notre Dame’s first berth in a Bowl Championship Series game and returning the storied program to the national top five.
The leadership provided by these veterans has been instrumental to the success of this year’s Irish team, which stands at 9-1 and hopes to become the first squad in nine years to register 10 victories. Intent on spoiling the party for Notre Dame this Saturday is an up-and-coming Rutgers team with a propensity for playing well in big games.
The Irish come into the weekend fresh off a much-needed bye week. After opening the season with eight consecutive victories to move to No. 3 in the BCS standings, Notre Dame fell 14-7 at home to Boston College three weeks ago.
A week later, it took 15 points in the final five minutes for the Irish to extend their NCAA-record winning streak against Navy to 39 games. Trailing 23-15, Carlyle Holiday hit Omar Jenkins for a 29-yard gain to set up a score. Holiday then found Arnaz Battle in the corner of the end zone for a two-point conversion to tie the game. After a Courtney Watson’s sack on third down forced the Midshipmen to punt, Holiday went deep, hitting Jenkins for a 67-yard score on the next play to secure a 30-23 victory. Holiday finished with a career-high 272 yards passing, including 166 to Jenkins.
Though the Scarlet Knights have posted only one victory in 10 games in 2002, they took leads into the second half against Tennessee and No. 1 Miami and feature a plethora of talented young players who have shown flashes of brilliance.
Rutgers’ lone win came in week three in the form of a 44-0 victory over Army. The Scarlet Knights forced five turnovers and rolled up 399 yards of total offense in the victory.
Two weeks later, the Knights took a 14-7 lead into the lockerroom in Knoxville, Tenn., against the Volunteers before falling 35-14.
The Scarlet Knights have shown much improvement of late. On Nov. 2, top-ranked Miami visited the birthplace of college football and nearly had its then-30-game winning streak snapped. Heading into the final period, Rutgers led 17-14, but the Hurricanes responded with 28 fourth-quarter points for a 42-17 victory. Scarlet Knight freshman quarterback Ryan Hart made his first career start and almost pulled off the miracle, leading his team on an 80-yard touchdown drive to open the game.
Last week, Rutgers nearly posted its second win of the season, but fell 20-17 after taking a 17-3 halftime advantage against Temple.
Among Notre Dame’s seniors intent on beating the Scarlet Knights in their final home game are 15 current Irish starters and four special-teams regulars. Those veterans and a number of other role players from the class of 2003 have been outstanding this season.
Notre Dame’s defense has been outstanding this season, ranking in the national top 15 in the four major statistical categories. Linebacker Courtney Watson and cornerback Shane Walton have been among the best in the country at their positions. Watson became the second Notre Dame player ever (joining Michael Stonebreaker) to be named as one of the three finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker. The Sarasota, Fla., native, who could apply for a fifth year at Notre Dame, leads the Irish defense with 81 tackles, despite missing the first two games with a viral infection.
Walton, a three-year starter who was the leading scorer on the Irish soccer team as a freshman in 1998, is the first Irish player since Todd Lyght to register six interceptions in a season. He tied the school record with three picks against Maryland and iced the 25-23 win over Michigan by breaking up the Wolverines’ two-point attempt and then intercepting a pass after forcing and recovering a fumble earlier in the contest.
Two other secondary playmakers are in the class of ’03. Free safety Glenn Earl, who could apply for another season of eligibility, ranks second on the team with 65 tackles. Earl has been involved in six turnovers and was a force against Florida State, collecting a season-high 11 tackles, as well as a sack, an interception and a forced fumble.
Strong safety Gerome Sapp, a two-time Thorpe Award nominee, is third on the Irish in tackles. He took a fumble 54 yards for a score in the seven-point victory against Purdue and sealed the Michigan State win with an interception on the Spartans final drive.
A trio of starting defensive linemen, Darrell Campbell, Cedric Hilliard and Ryan Roberts, are seniors. Campbell, a two-year starter at tackle, and Hilliard, who started the first eight games of the season before being sidelined due to a knee injury, could both return for a fifth season. Right end Roberts leads the Irish with eight sacks in his final year of eligibility.
On the offensive side of the ball, three skill players and the entire offensive line will graduate in the spring.
Former quarterback Battle has been the leading receiver for Notre Dame, hauling in 43 passes for 588 yards and three touchdowns. Among those scores was a 60-yard game-winner in the final two minutes against Michigan State and a 65-yard score on the opening play against Florida State. Battle became the first Notre Dame receiver in 22 games to break the century mark in receiving yards against Pittsburgh before he caught all eight Irish completions for 112 yards a week later against Air Force.
Another former signalcaller, Gary Godsey, has also found success on the other end of passes. The starting tight end has caught 15 passes this season, including a team-leading four against Purdue. Godsey, who is eligible for a fifth year, also made a key block to enable Battle to score to beat Michigan State.
Fullback Tom Lopienski has been a mainstay throughout his career, starting 27 games. He scored his first career rushing touchdown against Navy.
The offensive line has helped Irish running back Ryan Grant to seven games with 90+ rushing yards. Center Jeff Faine anchors the core of veterans. One of the best centers in all of college football, Faine has been a workhorse for the Irish, leading the team in minutes played in each of the last three seasons. He has started each of the last 32 Notre Dame contests, helping five different Irish quarterbacks lead the team to victories.
Faine and the right side of the line, Sean Milligan and Brennan Curtin, are all eligible to return for another season. Guard Milligan and tackle Curtin each saw major minutes a year ago before taking over as the sole starter this season.
On the left side, tackle Jordan Black and guard Sean Mahan will be playing in Notre Dame Stadium for the final time this weekend. Black has started all 42 games in his collegiate career, while Mahan is a two-year regular for Notre Dame.
Four special teams regulars are also slated to graduate in May. Punter Joey Hildbold, a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, leads the nation with 28 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. Long snapper John Crowther, along with defensive end Kyle Budinscak, was named to the Verizon Academic All-District V team this week for the second straight year and has been a key to the success of the Irish special teams units, as has holder David Miller, another competitor in his final home game. Kicker Nicholas Setta, who could return for another year, hit five field goals in the Kickoff Classic and ranks second in school history with a current string of 80 consecutive successful PATs.
The hopes for Rutgers are pinned on second-year head coach Greg Schiano, the youngest Division I-A mentor in the country, who has shown the potential to turn the Scarlet Knights into a much-improved program. Schiano, who the defensive coordinator for the Miami for two years before coming to Piscataway, has put together the two finest recruiting classes in the school’s history, according to the Rutgers media guide.
Two of those first-year players have made immediate impacts on the Knights’ fortunes: Hart and running back Markis Facyson. Hart assumed the starting quarterback role against Miami after Trump and sophomore Ryan Cubit had shared the duties over the first eight contests. Facyson is the leading Knight rusher on the season and gained 129 yards on the ground against Army, the highest total ever by a Rutgers freshman.
One strength for the Scarlet Knights has been special teams. Junior Nate Jones has been named BIG EAST Special Teams Player of the Week on two occasions this season. The junior has a pair of 100-yard kick return touchdowns to his credit and leads the conference, while ranking fifth nationally, by averaging 29.2 yards per return. He took the opening kickoff 100 yards for a score against Tennessee and duplicated the feat in the third quarter against Syracuse. Jones also blocked a field goal against the Orangemen, allowing teammate Brandon Haw to pick it up and go 90 yards for the first score of the game.
In 2001, Mike Barr became the first punter in school history to average 42 yards per attempt. This season, the senior ranks third in the conference, while his career average is currently tops in Rutgers history.