Oct. 11, 2002
by Bo Rottenborn
At Notre Dame Stadium this weekend, two of the hottest teams boasting two of the best defenses in the country will meet, each intent on continuing its strong start.
Notre Dame is 5-0 for the first time since 1993 and is ranked eighth in the nation, marking the highest ranking for the Irish in six years.
Pittsburgh has won 11 of its last 12 games, dating back to the 2001 season, and is unbeaten in its last six road games. The Panthers are off to their second 5-1 start in the last three years.
Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham has been instrumental in the Irish success. He is the first Notre Dame mentor to win his first five contests since Ara Parseghian’s 1964 debut season in which he helped the Irish to a 9-1 record and a final national ranking of No. 3.
Each of the last four games for Willingham’s team has been decided in the second half, including three consecutive come-from-behind victories.
Last week, the Irish trailed 7-3 heading into halftime against Stanford before a scoring explosion of 21 points in a 3:13 span late in the third quarter, led Notre Dame to a 31-7 victory.
As has been the case repeatedly this season, it was the Irish defense that was the deciding factor in the outcome. Twenty-four seconds after sophomore running back Rashon Powers-Neal scored his first career touchdown, senior cornerback Shane Walton picked off a pass and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. Less than two minutes later after that, linebacker Courtney Watson got in on the action, wrestling a pass attempt out of the hands of a Cardinal receiver and taking it 34 yards, giving Notre Dame a 24-7 advantage.
Sophomore Pat Dillingham made his first career start against Stanford and became the 13th out of the last 15 first-time starters at quarterback for Notre Dame to win his debut. It was the second time in as many games the former walk-on was able to rally his team from a deficit.
Inserted into the contest after starter Carlyle Holiday suffered a shoulder injury against Michigan State, Dillingham hit senior receiver Arnaz Battle for a 60-yard score with just over a minute remaining in the game, clinching a 21-17 win – Notre Dame’s first in the last six meetings with the Spartans.
Michigan gained a one-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter against the Irish in week three, but Notre Dame responded with a 76-yard touchdown drive and was able to stop a two-point conversion attempt with less than three minutes remaining in the 25-23 win over the Wolverines. Notre Dame did not trail in the first two games of the season, but it took a Vontez Duff punt return touchdown to secure a 22-0 win over Maryland in Kickoff Classic XX and a Duff interception return for a touchdown in a tie game to provide the deciding score in a 24-17 win over Purdue the following week.
Pittsburgh has had more margin for error, with half of their games being decided by 18 points or more.
After the Panthers opened the season successfully, forcing six turnovers and scoring the first 20 points in a 27-14 triumph over Ohio, Pittsburgh suffered its only loss thus far in week two. Texas A&M, ranked 20th at the time, led 14-0 heading into the final period before the Panthers scored a pair of touchdowns. Forced by a missed extra point to attempt a two-point conversion to tie the game with 2:02 remaining, Pittsburgh could not connect and fell 14-12.
The Panthers have bounced back from the defeat with four straight wins, though they were forced to rally a week later from a 20-17 deficit for a 26-20 triumph over UAB.
Since then Pittsburgh has been quite dominant, jumping out to big leads en route to lopsided victories over Rutgers, Toledo and Syracuse. The Panthers scored the first 17 points of the game in a 23-3 win over the Scarlet Knights and then led 27-6 after three periods against the Rockets, going on to win 37-19.
Last week, an impressive Pittsburgh team improved to 2-0 in the BIG EAST and broke an 11-game losing streak against the Orangemen with their first win in the Carrier Dome in two decades. The Panthers led 48-3 late in the third quarter before Syracuse put up three late touchdowns. Sixth-year Panthers head coach Walt Harris is on the verge of seeing a resurgence in the program that turned in 11 consecutive winning seasons from 1973-83, including the 1976 national title and three straight 11-1 finishes. Harris’ teams have traveled to three bowl games and posted back-to-back winning seasons in 2000 and ’01 for the first time in a dozen years.
The hot start of this year’s squad can be attributed to a stifling defense, accentuated by a dangerous passing attack. Through six games, the Panthers are ranked in the top 18 in the country in all six defensive categories. After finishing seventh in total defense in ’01, Pittsburgh ranks eighth this season.
A few specific instances of the Panther defensive dominance are easy to find. Toledo is averaging over 230 rushing yards in each of their other four contests this season, but managed just 104 against Pittsburgh. Texas A&M was able to muster fewer than three yards per carry against the Panthers, gaining just 82 yards on the ground on 32 attempts. Ohio passed for only 79 yards, fumbled once and had five passes intercepted by Pittsburgh’s defense. Rutgers had just 164 yards of total offense and finished with -3 yards on the ground on 28 carries.
Numerous Panthers have been integral to this effort, but two outstanding performers have led the defense. Senior linebacker Gerald Hayes is on the watch list for the Butkus, Lombardi and Bronko Nagurski awards and is having a season worthy of the mentions. He has over 50 tackles to lead the team, including eight behind the line of scrimmage. Hayes also has a pair of interceptions to his credit and has caused and recovered a fumble, taking it in for his first career touchdown. Hayes, who had a career-high 17 tackles against Ohio, is trying to become the first Pittsburgh defender to record three straight 100-tackle seasons since All-American Jerry Olsavsky from 1986-88.
Junior cornerback Shawntae Spencer leads the BIG EAST in interceptions after snatching three in the season-opener against Ohio, matching both the school and conference records.
Offensively, Harris has traditionally brought a strong passing game to the table and this year is no exception. Junior Rod Rutherford has been outstanding in his first year as the Pittsburgh signalcaller. He ranks second in the BIG EAST in passing efficiency, total offense and points responsible for, and is 18th nationally in pass efficiency. Rutherford has completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,351 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Two Panther specialists also rank among the nation’s elite. Senior cornerback Torrie Cox is seventh nationally in kickoff returns, averaging just under 30 per attempt, while junior Andy Lee is seventh in punting with a 45.1 average.
Notre Dame’s defense also has been dominant, ranking in the top eight in the country in five categories, including fourth in scoring defense, surrendering fewer than 13 points per game.
Walton has been outstanding all season. He is tied for No. 1 in the nation in interceptions and each of them has been meaningful. Walton grabbed three picks to tie the school record against Maryland, then intercepted a Wolverine pass (after batting away the potentially game-tying two-point conversion attempt) to end the Michigan game and opened the flood gates against Stanford.
Watson has been equally dominant after missing the first two games with a viral infection. Despite the late start, the Irish senior leads the team with 35 tackles and has a pair of sacks, as well as the interception score against the Cardinal.
In general, though, the Notre Dame defense has been a successful unit, working together to shut down opposing offenses. Seven different Irish players are averaging four or more tackles per game, while nine have registered sacks and nine have been involved in a turnover.
A key to Notre Dame’s continued success this season may be the resurgence of its running game. After not reaching the 160-yard plateau in rushing yards in any of their first four games, the Irish amassed 249 against Stanford, while two players broke the 100-yard barrier for the first time in almost a year.
Sophomore Grant has become the workhorse for the Irish, rushing for 90 or more yards in each of the last four games and ranking in the nation’s top 30 rushers with 487 yards. Grant had a career-high 132 yards against Michigan.
After heading into the contest with just 125 career rushing yards, classmate Powers-Neal scampered for 108 yards on just 13 carries against the Cardinal, averaging over eight yards per attempt.
Notre Dame’s offensive line was a big factor in the Irish rushing dominance versus Stanford. The five seniors – Jordan Black, Brennan Curtin, Jeff Faine, Sean Mahan, and Sean Milligan – have combined for 100 career starts heading into this weekend and they have helped allow Notre Dame to out rush its opponent in each game this season.