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Stewart Mandel inside.c.football

Hope springs eternal

Optimism reigns in South Bend after impressive win over Michigan

Posted: Saturday September 11, 2004 10:15PM; Updated: Sunday September 12, 2004 12:22AM
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  Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham has plenty to smile about after one of his biggest wins during his tenure in South Bend.
AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- For one half of football Saturday, Notre Dame cruelly teased its suffering faithful. In a game few gave them a snowball's chance of winning, the Irish scattered little glimmers of hope in between stretches of futility -- a 49-yard bomb here, a menacing defensive hit there. As has been the case so often lately, however, they still found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard, trailing Michigan 9-0.

And yet, despite a recent track record suggesting otherwise, the mood circulating through Notre Dame Stadium was anything but hopeless. The Irish were, after all, outplaying the eighth-ranked team in the country, dominating defensively, moving the ball in a way they hadn't come close to the week before against BYU. One couldn't help but feel like something big was in the offing.

"It was more a feeling of hunger than anything else," said quarterback Brady Quinn.

The moment when Notre Dame officially went from teaser to pleaser came with 11:02 left in the third quarter. Quinn, still without a signature moment halfway into the second game of his second season as starter, dropped back, cocked, looked off his first receiver, saw reserve receiver Matt Shelton streaking down the left sideline in single coverage and hurled it 46 yards toward the end zone.

Touchdown, Irish. Hello, rejuvenation.

Over the next quarter-plus, the Irish unleashed what can only be described as an avalanche -- down 9-0 one minute, up 28-12 the next. Fifteen games worth of pent-up frustration spewing forth in the form of one big play after another.

Freshman running back Darius Walker, in his first collegiate game, ripping through the Wolverines' defense. Cornerback Dwight Ellick pouncing on a Braylon Edwards bobble to come up with an interception. Snapper Casey Dunn racing downfield on punt coverage to recover a fumble. A blocked punt.

It was all so long coming that even the robotically stoic Tyrone Willingham found himself jumping into the air in celebration when Ellick, with Notre Dame leading 21-12, swiped a pass out of the hands of Wolverines receiver Jason Avant to set up the Irish's last touchdown.

By the time the dust had settled, after the students had stormed the field, passing around jubilant receiver Rhema McKnight like a beach ball, and the band had serenaded the locker room, Willingham's game face had returned.

"Please understand, this is one football game," he begged the media. "We still have a lot of things we need to improve on."

But even Willingham couldn't help but allude to what 80,000 green-clad spectators were surely thinking.

"I will hope everything we did today starts to project us in the right direction."

Time will tell whether that comes to be, but one thing is certain: Willingham needed this win like John Kerry needs Ohio. As the man in charge of Notre Dame's worst 15-game stretch (10 losses) in over 40 years, it's no secret the vultures were circling heading into this, the most important game of his three-year tenure. Anything even remotely resembling last year's 38-0 debacle in Ann Arbor might have obliterated any remaining confidence among loyal Domers.

Yet in interviews leading up to Saturday, Willingham hardly sounded like a coach whose team had just opened its season by losing to a Mountain West team. Actually, he sounded, by his standards, fairly relaxed, meaning one of two things: Either he'd resigned himself to his fate, or he knew something we didn't.

Apparently it was the latter.

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Apparently he knew he had on his hands an aggressive defense very much in the mold of his highly ranked 2002 unit. Granted, Michigan was playing with a true freshman quarterback, Chad Henne, and lost its starting running back, David Underwood, on the game's first series. Still, it was hard not to be impressed by the way linebackers Mike Goolsby (14 tackles) and Brandon Hoyte (nine) swarmed to the ball, how physical cornerbacks Ellick and Preston Jackson stuck to Michigan's vaunted receivers.

And perhaps he also knew that Quinn, despite a shaky opener, was due to start connecting on some big plays. Though his stat line was marred by two flukish interceptions in which balls deflected off his receivers (he finished 10-of-20 for 178 yards, two touchdowns and three picks), the highly touted sophomore from Dublin, Ohio, showed long-awaited flashes of maturity. Once he connected on his first couple of deep balls, his confidence seemed to ignite.

What Willingham couldn't possibly have known, however, was that he would wind up giving the ball 31 times to a true freshman running back, Walker, who didn't even see the field last week. And that he would show the type of speed and explosiveness so sorely lacking against BYU when the Irish managed just 11 yards rushing.

Walker, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound scatterbug from Lawrenceville, Ga., who broke Herschel Walker's state single-season touchdown record, is the type of gamebreaking athlete Notre Dame has failed to land in recent years. One of the most highly regarded members of the Irish's most recent recruiting class, he finished with 115 yards and two touchdowns. And while he had been stuffed at the line on roughly half his carries, there were plenty of others when he broke a tackle and burst to the outside, an element that projected starter Ryan Grant, more of a straight-ahead runner, lacks. As Walker gained steam over the course of the ballgame, so, too, did the Notre Dame offense.

"A spark," Willingham said of Walker. "It's just that simple. He was a spark. A spark has a tendency to make everyone else do their jobs a little bit better."

Willingham is right to caution about putting too much stock in this win. For one thing, Michigan was vastly overrated -- the pollsters didn't properly consider the effect of losing stars John Navarre and Chris Perry and played revisionist history in regards to a defense that got torched on several occasions last season. The Wolverines are much closer to being a 7-4 or 8-3 team than they ever were to being Orange Bowl contestants.

They are, however, the type of team that Notre Dame struggled mightily against last season, and Notre Dame will be seeing plenty more teams of that echelon (Purdue, Tennessee, USC) in the weeks to come.

The Irish still need Quinn to become more consistent, and who knows whether Walker will be able to keep it up over the course of an entire season. Nevertheless, there's infinitely more reason for hope than there has been the past two years.

Said center Jason Sullivan: "I don't know if I can put into words how much this means."

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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