September 26, 1998
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – Notre Dame coach Bob Davie switched Tony Driver from running back to safety this spring, hoping he’d find a spark for his defense.
Against Purdue on Saturday, Davie got exactly what he was looking for.
Driver, who left school briefly two weeks ago because he was reportedly unhappy about the switch, made two key interceptions in the closing minutes and Jim Sanson kicked a 17-yard field goal with 57 seconds left to give the No. 23 Fighting Irish a 31-30 victory over Purdue.
“We knew if we could just get him set in and get him confident on defense, he may become a playmaker for us,” Davie said. “We’re looking for some playmakers on defense.”
Two weeks ago, Davie wasn’t sure Driver would ever play for Notre Dame again. After the Irish (2-1) lost to Michigan State 45-23, Driver met with Davie before leaving school for two days with the understanding that he might not return. But he came back two days later after spending some time with his mother in Louisville, Ky., saying he just needed some time to take care of personal business.
“She just told me it was going to be a struggle and you’ve got to go through it,” Driver said.
Driver returned his first interception off Mike Brees to the Purdue 5 with 1:39 left to set up Sanson’s field goal. His second interception with 37 seconds left ended Purdue’s hopes for a comeback after the Boilermakers (2-2) had reached the Notre Dame 44.
“We had the game won. All we had to do was get a first down or punt and let the defense do the rest,” Brees said of his first interception. “We had great confidence in our defense, but I just overthrew the receiver. It was a bad decision on my part, but I knew I could make the throw. I just threw it high. I made a mistake. Next time I have to throw it on the numbers.”
Notre Dame seemed on the verge of collapse after taking over at its 20 with 7:52 left, down 30-21. But quarterback Jarious Jackson marched the Irish 80 yards in 12 plays, including a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jabrai Holloway that cut Purdue’s lead to two with 3:25 left.
After Purdue took over on its 22, J. Crabtree was stopped for no gain on two straight plays. Then on third-and-10, Brees was flushed out of the pocket and rifled the ball down the middle into Driver’s arms.
“Brees threw the ball high to his receiver, and I was in the right spot to intercept the ball,” Driver said. “Once I got the ball, all I was thinking was get the ball in the end zone. I had good blocks all the way to the end zone, but I was stopped just short of where I wanted to end up.”
Autry Denson, who became Notre Dame’s No. 2 career rusher after gaining 143 yards on 31 carries, was stopped short of the end zone on three runs up the middle before Sanson came in to give Notre Dame its first lead of the game.
Before the two interceptions, Brees had been almost unstoppable, going 24-of-36 for 261 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 45 yards, including a 2-yard scoring run to cap the Boilermakers’ second scoring drive in the first quarter that put them up 14-0.
“He’s a good, bright kid,” Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. “I think he’ll understand it’s a learning experience. It’s hard to fault the guy.
“I thought, really, right at the end of the ballgame, our offensive players played the game not to lose it, rather than to win it, and I don’t think you can do that, ever.”
The Irish seemed headed for the same 1-4 start it had last season in the first quarter after falling behind 14-0 and faced with fourth-and-inches on their 38. Jackson dived for the first down by just inches and then converted a 13-yard pass to Malcolm Johnson on fourth-and-3 from the Purdue 27 before Denson scored on a 14-yard run.
“Philosophically, you could say it was a pivotal win. You’re hanging off that cliff and you come back to win, but I look at it more of what we have to improve on as a football team,” Davie said.
“Right now, we’re not a really good football team.”