Sept 6, 2003
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The West Coast offense finally showed a spark just in time for No. 19 Notre Dame.
Trailing 19-6 and in danger of losing for the fourth time in six games dating back to last season, the Irish offense amassed 181 yards of total offense and 20 points in the fourth quarter en route to a 29-26 overtime win over Washington State on Saturday.
Nicholas Setta kicked a 40-yard field goal in the extra period as the sea of green cheered wildly at the narrow escape. Setta had five field goals in the game.
“We’re lucky,” coach Tyrone Willingham said. “We’re fortunate.”
The game had the blueprint of some of the games the Irish won in getting off to a surprising 8-0 start last year: some luck and some big turnovers forced by the defense. The difference Saturday: the Irish offense came through in the clutch.
“We struggled. They came in with a plan, which was to pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure and they benefited from it for a long time,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said. “But it cost them a couple of times for some big runs and a couple of other plays.”
Washington State (1-1) jumped out to a 19-0 lead, but Notre Dame (1-0) chipped away at the deficit. The two fourth-quarter touchdowns ended a streak of 12 quarters without an offensive touchdown for the Irish.
The showing still was not the complete performance Notre Dame’s coaching staff had been hoping for since ditching the option last season for the more open West Coast offense. But it was good enough to provide the Irish with their biggest come-from-behind win since beating Southern California 25-24 in 1999 after trailing 21-3 at halftime.
“We accomplished our goal, which is to win,” Diedrick said.
The Irish were helped in their comeback by several Washington State mistakes. The Cougars had 14 penalties for 118 yards, including numerous miscues that kept Irish scoring drives alive.
We accomplished our goal, which is to win.Offensive Coordinator Bill Diedrick
“All through the second half all they had to do was go about 30 yards, so the penalties really hurt us,” defensive end Isaac Brown.
On the opening drive of the fourth quarter, a 32-yard run by Ryan Grant turned into a 47-yard gain when tackle Josh Shavies was called for a late hit. But even after the Irish finished the 78-yard drive with a 39-yard field goal by Setta to make it 19-9, the Irish appeared to have little chance.
The momentum changed abruptly when Troy Bienemann caught a short pass from Matt Kegel and was hit hard by Vontez Duff, knocking the ball free. Glenn Earl recovered the ball on the Washington State 25-yard line.
“We needed some things to happen all afternoon,” Willingham said.
It appeared that Washington State wouldn’t be harmed by the mistake when Holiday mishandled a snap and it bounced loose. Washington State defensive end D.D. Acholonu fell on the ball but couldn’t wrap it up, and Holiday reached under him and pulled it in. That set up an 11-yard TD pass from Holiday to Rhema McKnight to make it 19-16.
“That one hurt because that changed the attitude at that point,” Washington State defensive coordinator Robb Akey said. “But the thing was we survived that and had the opportunity to go to overtime.”
Rhema McKnight celebrates after a fourth quarter touchdown.
Julius Jones, who missed last year’s surprising turnaround season because he was academically ineligible, scored on a 19-yard TD run to give the Irish a 23-19 lead. Jones ran for 72 yards on 11 carries, while Holiday was 31-of-34 passing for 149 yards.
The Irish used another turnover to score. Under heavy pressure from Darrell Campbell, Kegel threw a wobbly pass that Derek Curry intercepted at the Washington State 35-yard line. The Irish couldn’t mount a drive, though, and settled for a 47-yard field goal by Setta with 3:03 left.
Washington State drove 80 yards to score with 53 seconds left, though, to force the overtime. A diving Sammy Moore made a diving catch into the end zone despite being interfered with on the 34-yard play.
The mostly costly error for the Cougars, though, is they were not able to capitalize on Notre Dame mistakes. Three Notre Dame turnovers led to a touchdown and two field goals.
“Our defense took the ball away and gave us opportunities early in the ball game and we got field goals instead of touchdowns,” Washington State coach Bill Doba said.
They were also hurt by kicker Drew Dunning, who hit the left crossbar on a point-after in the first quarter and a 34-yard field goal in overtime.
Doba, though, said the Irish deserved to win.
“Notre Dame didn’t quit,” he said. “They had an opportunity to go down when we had a good lead on them and they just kept coming back.”
By TOM COYNE
AP Sports Writer