Sept. 4, 2003
After Notre Dame won its first eight games en route to a 10-3 record in the first year under head coach Tyrone Willingham, the Irish begin today their quest to produce a worthy encore to that memorable performance. The first act, though, will not be easy, as Notre Dame begins a new rivalry, welcoming Washington State (1-0) to Notre Dame Stadium for the first-ever meeting between the schools.
Only four teams across the country had better records over the last two years than the Cougars’ 20-5 mark. Although four first-team All-Americans are gone, 14 starters return from the ’02 squad that was 10-3, earned a share of the Pac-10 title, and gained a trip to the Rose Bowl due to a head-to-head victory over USC.
The 2003 season will be produced and directed by Willingham, who earned a number of national coach-of-the-year awards in becoming the only Irish mentor to win 10 games in his initial campaign.
His counterpart on the opposite sideline will make the first scene of this football show one featuring the triumphant return of a local boy who made good. Bill Doba now leads the Cougars, after stepping up from the defensive coordinator post he filled for the last nine seasons. The WSU mentor was born in South Bend and competed in football, basketball, track, and baseball at nearby New Carlisle High School before enrolling at Ball State.
Doba’s coaching career was born on the high school fields surrounding South Bend. After serving as an assistant at Goshen High School and Angola High School, he became the head coach of the former in 1968 before moving on to Mishawaka High three years later. Leading the Caveman program for six seasons, he compiled a 46-15-1 record and helped Mishawaka to the state title game in 1974. The first two collegiate coaching assignments for Doba also were in Indiana, with him serving as an assistant at both IU (1977-82) and Purdue (’83-86) before moving to The Citadel for two years prior to heading to Pullman.
Though he returns to his childhood stomping grounds with just one career game as a collegiate head coach under his belt, Doba has a great deal of football experience. In all, he is in his 42nd year of coaching, including 26 in the collegiate ranks.
The first Doba-led Cougars squad could be quite dissimilar to recent WSU teams – at least in offensive philosophy – if last week’s season-opening 25-0 win over Idaho is any indication. In the past, Washington State has relied heavily on an aerial attack to put points on the board. In 2002, the Cougars’ season rushing total of 1,680 yards was less than half of the 3,805 yards WSU gained through the air.
Jason Gesser, the focal point of that passing offense, graduated last spring after a career that warrants the title of most prolific passer in Washington State history. Despite names like Mark Rypien, Timm Rosenbach, Drew Bledsoe, and Ryan Leaf dotting the Cougar record book, Gesser holds 14 school passing records, including career passing yards (8,830) and touchdowns (70).
The departure of Gesser (and the hiring of defensive coordinator Doba) may have signaled a new era in Washington State football. Last week against Idaho, the Cougars did a few things they didn’t do all of last season – rack up more yards on the ground than through the air and not score a point with their passing attack. Senior Jermaine Green, a candidate for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back, had 48 yards on 21 carries, but classmate Jonathan Smith, who accrued 284 rushing yards all last season, ran for 160 on 15 carries in the season opener. Backup Chris Bruhn also got in the action, with 118 yards on nine carries in his first game as a Cougar after transferring from Butte College. Washington State finished with 339 yards rushing on 50 carries – an average of nearly seven yards per attempt.
Matt Kegel, a senior and heir to Gesser’s throne, had an efficient, if unspectacular, day, completing 12 of 21 passes for 108 yards. His receiving corps, which is led by junior Devard Darling, who had 800 receiving yards and 11 touchdown catches a year ago, features mostly new faces. Sophomore tight end Troy Bienemann, who started 11 games as a freshman, can be an offensive weapon, though, having caught 15 passes for 233 yards in ’02.
Just one game into the year, it is still impossible to tell how different this year’s Washington State offense will be from the ’02 version, which surpassed 400 yards in total offense on six occasions and averaged more than 33 points per game. Regardless of the philosophy, it will present a challenge for the Notre Dame defense, which once again figures to be a strength for the Irish.
The unit was undoubtedly a major reason for the team’s success in year one of the Willingham era. Notre Dame was 10th in the nation a year ago in run defense, surrendering only 95.23 yards per game. It was ninth in scoring defense (16.69 points per game), 10th in pass efficiency defense, and 13th in total defense. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Irish defenders was their ability to imitate the offense and find the endzone. In all, six different defensive players scored a total of nine touchdowns a year ago (with five coming on special teams plays) and the defense grabbed at least one interception in every game.
Three integral elements in last year’s mix are gone. Unanimous first-team All-America cornerback Shane Walton, as well as safety Gerome Sapp and end Ryan Roberts will be missed, but the other eight starters return to the fold.
Senior Courtney Watson led the Irish with 90 tackles last season.
Despite those losses, Notre Dame has a number of talented returnees on defense. First-team All-America linebacker Courtney Watson led the Irish in tackles (90) despite missing three games a year ago. Senior cornerback Vontez Duff was a third-team All-American in 2002 and has 21 career starts heading into this year. Duff and senior free safety Glenn Earl both were named preseason candidates for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back.
Up front, Notre Dame has three returning starters, including All-America candidate Cedric Hilliard, at nose guard.
Defensively, Washington State, like the Irish, has some big holes to fill this season. Gone are first-team All-American and first-round draft pick cornerback Marcus Trufant, as well as Outland Trophy winner defensive tackle Rien Long.
Nonetheless, the WSU defense returns nine of its top dozen tacklers from last year’s defense, which was nothing short of prolific in stopping the run, while also having a penchant for picking off opposing passers.
Since 1990, on 62 occasions (in 162 games), Washington State has held its opponent to fewer than 100 yards rushing. A year ago, the Cougars surrendered just 87.2 yards per game on the ground (eighth in the nation), and they allowed just 83 against Idaho.
Washington State’s experienced front seven is led by end Isaac Brown, who is third on the WSU all-time list with 19.5 career sacks.
The Cougar secondary is the strength of the defense, featuring three returning starters with a knack for interceptions. Senior cornerback Jason David last year became the first Cougar to pick off opponents’ passes in six consecutive games. His seven for the season set a WSU junior record and helped him be named to the watch list for the Thorpe Award heading into ’03. Senior strong safety Virgil Williams got in on the interception action early this season, grabbing a pair last week, while free safety Erik Coleman returns after leading the Cougars in tackles in 2002.
Also of note on the interception front is sophomore linebacker Will Derting, who last year returned a pick 98 yards against Nevada, marking the longest in school history.
The Irish offense hoping not to fall victim to those strengths of the Cougar defense has a number of returning weapons at the skill positions. Senior Carlyle Holiday returns for his third season as the Irish signalcaller. A candidate for the Davey O’Brien Award given to the nation’s top quarterback, he is 14-7 as a starter and set a Notre Dame record with 126 consecutive passes without an interception. In his career, Holiday has 2,572 yards passing and 13 touchdowns. In addition, he is the most dangerous running quarterback in Irish history, holding the distinction of being the only Notre Dame signalcaller ever to have three 100-yard rushing games in his career. In a four-game stretch in 2001, Holiday had 459 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
Senior Carlyle Holiday will get the nod at quarterback for this Saturday’s game against Washington State.
Although favorite receiver Arnaz Battle is gone, every other Irish player who caught more than three passes a year ago returns, giving Holiday an experienced group of targets. Leading the way will be senior Omar Jenkins and sophomore Maurice Stovall, who combined for 55 catches, 945 yards, and six scores a year ago.
Joining the veteran QB in the backfield will be a pair of star tailbacks aiming to solve the riddle of the WSU run defense. Junior Ryan Grant became only the seventh Notre Dame player ever to run for 1,000 yards in a season a year ago, while senior Julius Jones returns to the team after a year away. Jones led the Irish in rushing in 2000 and ’01 and has 1,750 career yards on the ground to go with 16 touchdowns.
Perhaps not surprisingly – since good special teams play seems to so often be a feature of teams that win a lot of games – both Notre Dame and Washington State expect to get periodic game-impacting boosts from their special teams units.
Washington State was not disappointed in its first game of the season, as junior kicker Drew Dunning, a candidate for the Lou Groza Awaard for the third straight year, hit all four of his field-goal attempts, including a pair over 40 yards. Dunning has been successful in taking a number of WSU kicking records away from long-time NFL kicker Jason Hanson. The current Cougar set school records a year ago for points (113) and field goals in a season (22) and also currently stands as the most accurate field-goal kicker in WSU history by a large margin, having hit 45-61 career attempts for a 73.8 percent conversion rate.
In addition, 6-foot-8 tight end Cody Boyd single-handedly preserved last week’s Washington State shutout … twice. He got his paw up to block a pair of Vandal field goal attempts, from 39 and 42 yards, in the first half.
The Washington State return game is buoyed by senior Sammy Moore, who was second in the Pac-10 a year ago averaging 25.6 yards per kick return.
Notre Dame’s special teams truly lived up to their name in 2002, scoring five touchdowns, and featuring one of the top kicker-punter combos in the nation. Back is Duff, one of the most accomplished returners in school history. His 911 kick-return yards a year ago broke the Notre Dame record held by Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown. Duff, who has four career touchdowns, is the only Irish player ever to score on an interception, kick return, and punt return in the same season.
The return of Jones figures to make the Notre Dame return game even more dangerous. He trails only Brown in career kick return yards.
Senior Nicholas Setta is back for his fourth season as the Irish kicker, and he will also take over the punting duties. He holds the Irish record for consecutive games with a field goal, at 16, and he has made 87 consecutive extra points. Against Maryland in ’02, Setta joined current NFL kicker Craig Hentrich as the only two Notre Dame players ever to kick five field goals in a game.