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Updated: Sunday, October 20, 2002 3:18 AM EDT
NCAA FOOTBALL RECAP
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(7) Notre Dame 21, (15) Air Force 14
NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
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AIR FORCE FALCONS
Air Force Falcons
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (Ticker) -- Notre Dame continues to find ways to win.

The seventh-ranked Fighting Irish cleared another major hurdle and remained in the national championship mix by grinding out a 21-14 victory over No. 15 Air Force in a battle of unbeatens.

Notre Dame (7-0) relied on old-fashioned power football to shut down the nation's top rushing attack, holding the Falcons (6-1) to 104 yards on the ground, nearly 200 yards below their average.

"This was one of the most difficult assigments that any defense could have," said Notre Dame's Tyrone Willingham, who joined Jesse Harper (1914) and Ara Parseghian (1964) as the only coaches in school history to win their first seven games.

The Fighting Irish, who matched their best start since 1993, have won five of their seven games by eight points or less. They have another major test test next week at 14th-ranked Florida State.

Ryan Grant rushed for 190 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries as Notre Dame kept its defense off the field by piling up first downs.

In essence, the Fighting Irish blanked Air Force as the Falcons got both of their touchdowns directly off turnovers. On each occasion, Notre Dame answered with time-consuming scoring drives.

"Tonight we were an inch or two from making plays," Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said. "They diagnosed our option plays well."

Air Force had to punt on its first three possessions after being forced into 3rd-and-long each time, but the Falcons grabbed a 7-0 lead when linebacker Marchello Graddy returned Carlyle Holiday's fumble 21 yards for a touchdown with 3:52 left in the first quarter.

But Holiday redeemed himself on the ensuing possession, scoring on a 53-yard keeper to tie it with 1:12 left in the first quarter.

"They stretched us on almost every snap, offensively and defensively," Willingham said. "We knew coming in that Air Force is a heck of a football team."

On its following possession, Air Force reached the Notre Dame 42 before John Welsh's punt was downed at the 6. The Fighting Irish held the ball for more than seven minutes before Nicholas Setta missed a 41-yard field goal.

The Falcons went three-and-out and Notre Dame put together another long march, driving 79 yards in 12 plays over 4 1/2 minutes. Grant scored on an 18-yard run to give the Irish a 14-7 lead with 61 seconds to go in the first half.

"You've got to be able to keep your opponent in their end of the field and we weren't able to do that," DeBerry said.

Notre Dame's Vontez Duff fumbled the second-half kickoff and Felix Cole recovered for the Falcons at the 16. Seven plays later, Air Force tied it on Chance Harridge's one-yard dive over the top.

But Air Force could not sustain any drives as its longest possession lasted 27 yards.

Notre Dame got back the ball and engineered another sustained drive, resulting in Holiday's one-yard TD plunge with 6:14 left in the third quarter.

Air Force got a reprive when Setta missed a 36-yard field goal early in the final period, but the Falcons could not get into Notre Dame territory.

"We left our defense on the field entirely too long," DeBerry said.

Facing 4th-and-6 at its 37-yard line with just under five minutes left, Air Force elected to punt. But the Falcons did not see the ball again as Notre Dame picked up two first downs and ran out the clock.

The Fighting Irish rushed for 335 yards and had 22 first downs, compared to 10 for Air Force. Holiday rushed for 71 yards on nine carries and completed 8-of-15 passes for 112 yards.

Harridge was just 6-for-14 for 57 yards and was held to 31 yards on the ground. Air Force converted 4-of-13 third-down opportunities, disappointing a record crowd of 56,409 at Falcon Stadium.


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