Tom Zbikowski helped Notre Dame defeat Michigan and Michigan State in the same season for the first time in 14 years.

The Last Word...

Sept. 24, 2004

by John Heisler

Maybe the ultimate beauty of college athletics, and in this case college football, is that – at the end of the day – none of us know for sure what’s going to happen from one Saturday to the next.

Who might ever have thought the Notre Dame football nation would go from the depths of frustration and disappointment from one Saturday night in Provo, Utah, to the uplifting euphoria created by a win seven days later over Michigan?

At least from the standpoint of Irish fans, it might have been the most monumental emotional swing in a week’s time in Irish football history. If not, it certainly would rank right up there among the leaders.

Meanwhile, three weekends into the young season, consider these items that just might surprise you:

– After three games, would you have guessed that Matt Shelton would be leading the Irish in touchdown receptions with two and would also be leading the team this season with an average of 42 yards per catch (and 33.4 per reception on his eight career grabs)?

– As the Irish look for a throwback version to their 2002 defensive resume, would you have ventured that 11 takeaways already would have been chalked up (tied for third nationally, behind Michigan with 14 and USC with 12)?

– If you had to identify two Notre Dame players to be named national players of the week on their respective sides of the ball, would you have guessed a pair of Irish (tailback Darius Walker and safety Tom Zbikowski) who had never played a down of college football prior to 2004?

– Would you have guessed that an Irish rookie (Walker) would be averaging better than 100 rushing yards per game — and would be ranked 20th nationally in that category, if only he had played in 75 percent of his team’s games (the only freshman currently ranked in the top 50 is Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson)?

– Would you have been surprised that Notre Dame’s strength of schedule would factor in at fourth nationally – with future Irish opponents currently standing 15-3?

– Would you have appreciated the similarity between Notre Dame’s first two games? In each case, the losing football team as much as anything struggled to run the ball effectively.

– Though the Irish offense has miles to go in terms of consistency as far as Tyrone Willingham is concerned, Irish quarterback Brady Quinn’s current average of 219 passing yards per game would stand as the third-best figure in Notre Dame history if it held up for the season.

– Can you appreciate the motivational chore of Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, whose players had to remember their 38-0 win over the Irish in ’03, must have seen Notre Dame’s 11-yard net rushing total from Provo – and had no particular reason to have any idea who Darius Walker was?

– Notice that the Irish have won five of their last seven dating back to 2003?

– For the record, it’s been 14 years since Notre Dame has been able to say it won two of its last three yearly meetings with both Michigan and Michigan State. The Irish haven’t beaten Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium twice in a three-year span since 1988 and 1990. That 1988-90 period is also the last time the Irish could say they stood 2-1 versus the Wolverines. Against a Michigan State team that had won six of the last seven series meetings coming into 2004, Notre Dame recorded consecutive victories in East Lansing for the first time since 1992 and ’94. The Irish haven’t been able to say they stood 2-1 against the Spartans in a three-year span since winning eight games in a row over Michigan State from 1987 through 1994. ∑ You have to start the conversation by noting that sacks have only been kept as an official statistic since 1982. Still, current Irish defensive end Justin Tuck has managed to break the all-time record of 22.5 by Kory Minor – and also surpass the totals compiled by names like Mike Gann, Bryant Young, Anthony Weaver and Bert Berry – and all of that with Tuck still having the last three-quarters of the 2004 season plus another full season of play in 2005 to add to that total.

– Notre Dame’s six forced turnovers at Michigan State marked the most (by two) in the Willingham era and the most since that same number against Arizona State in 1999.

– Three weeks into the 2004 season the grand total of combined records for the 11 opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule is 20-8 (and five of those eight defeats are listed for teams the Irish already have played, including two of them provided by Notre Dame).

– Did you notice that of the 11 players the Irish have been starting on offense so far in 2004, the only one who will exhaust the last of his eligibility in ’04 is running back Ryan Grant?