SOUTH BEND, Indiana (Ticker) -- Cornerback Shane Walton and linebacker Courtney Watson helped ease the pressure on Pat Dillingham.
Walton and Watson each returned interceptions for touchdowns in the third quarter, powering the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish past Stanford, 31-7, and giving coach Tyrone Willingham a victory against his former team.
Willingham spent seven years at Stanford (1-3) before taking over at Notre Dame last winter.
"We've had great defensive play all year," Willingham said. "I expect great things from the offense, too. I told both the offense and defense they would need to step it up today. There was a stretch in the third quarter where I felt it all came together for us on both sides of the ball."
With Carlyle Holiday still nursing an injured left shoulder, Dillingham got his first start at quarterback for the undefeated Fighting Irish (5-0).
Dillingham was largely ineffective as Willingham kept his offensive game plan close to the vest. Notre Dame was held to a field goal in the first half and trailed, 7-3, at the half to a team that allowed 65 points in a loss to Arizona State last week.
"I made some mistakes," Dillingham said. "I have to go in and watch the game on film to see what it looked like."
"I'm going to cautious in evaluating how well Pat played today because I think it is too early to do so," Willingham added. "I believe he did some good things, though."
But the defense, which continues to be Notre Dame's strong suit, put away the contest in the third quarter.
The Fighting Irish finally took the lead, 10-7, on Rashon Powers-Neal's one-yard run with 4:22 remaining in the third quarter. Just 24 seconds later, Walton returned his fifth interception of the season 17 yards to make it 17-7.
The Fighting Irish have scored six touchdowns on defense or special teams this year.
With 1:09 left in the period, Watson rambled 34 yards with an interception, extending Notre Dame's advantage to 24-7. Ryan Grant's one-yard TD run capped the scoring early in the fourth.
"They threw everything they could at us in the first half," Watson said. "We knew they couldn't beat us doing what they wanted."
"Turnovers have been the nemesis for us all year," Stanford coach Buddy Teevens added. "The first 30 minutes was a solid ballgame for both teams but in the third quarter, turnovers really killed us."
Notre Dame continued its best start since 1993, when the Fighting Irish won their first 10 games. Willingham joined Jesse Harper (1914), Frank Leahy (1941) and Ara Parseghian (1964) as the only Notre Dame coaches to win their first five games.
Dillingham completed 14-of-27 passes for just 129 yards, but Notre Dame had a pair of 100-yard rushers. Powers-Neal rushed for 108 yards on 13 carries, while Grant ran for 103 yards on 18 carries.
Stanford's Chris Lewis, who was close to Willingham and cried when he learned that his former coach had taken the Notre Dame job, completed 21-of-43 passes for 201 yards, but threw three interceptions.
"Some of our emotions showed after the game, not only with coach Willingham but also with some of their positional coaches," Stanford running back Kerry Carter said. "Overall, it was good to see them, even though it was hard to see them this way after a tough loss."
Lewis gave Stanford a 7-0 lead by tossing a 14-yard TD strike to Teyo Johnson with 44 seconds left in the first quarter. But the Cardinal were held to just 61 yards on the ground.
Notre Dame closed to 7-3 on Nicholas Setta's 30-yard field goal with 2:03 remaining in the first half.
The Fighting Irish continued to sputter on offense as Dillingham threw an interception and Setta missed a 38-yard field goal on their first two first possessions of the second half.
But Notre Dame finally got untracked offensively, marching 57 yards in six plays following a punt to take the lead on Powers-Neal's short TD run.
Lewis was picked off on Stanford's next three possessions and each interception set up Notre Dame touchdowns.