Sure enough, on Notre Dame's first play Holiday launched a 55-yard pass to Battle that fell incomplete. On the very next play Holiday went deep again, this time connecting with freshman wideout Maurice Stovall for 41 yards. Nine plays later the offense scored its first touchdown of 2002, a bulldozing one-yard run from sophomore back Ryan Grant, who finished with a career-high 132 yards on 28 carries.
Grant's emergence in the backfield will ease some of the burden on Holiday, who hasn't looked as comfortable since his promising performance in Week 1, when he completed 17 of his 27 passes for 226 yards. In the Purdue game he went just 7 for 22 for a paltry 50 yards, and against the Wolverines he made 8 of his 17 throws for 154 yards and no touchdowns. Diedrick is the first to admit that the offense has work to do. "People around here are hungry for a sense of what this new offensive scheme is," he says, "but right now it's nowhere near where we want it to be. We'll be learning and developing this system all the way through the season, from the next game to the last. Carlyle has the arm and poise to run the offense we want to run. The progress may be a little bit slower than I'd like right now, but we're going to get it done."
While Willingham used a staff meeting last spring to screen the Notre Dame documentary Wake Up the Echoes and recommended that his assistant coaches rent Rudy and Knute Rockne—All American to become better acquainted with Fighting Irish tradition, the assistants insist they won't be burdened by history. "We didn't know how the previous system was run when we got here," says Baer. "We didn't really care. We're still learning how best to work with the kids, but we came in with a great sense of how we wanted things to be done."
For the first time since 1946 Notre Dame coaches are selecting captains on a game-by-game basis so that they can recognize more players for their performance during the season. Practices have been streamlined; they are shorter but packed with as many real-game situations as possible. "Practices are so fast," says senior defensive tackle Darrell Campbell. "In the past they seemed to go on for hours. We'd just hit each other for hours left and right, and that's all. Everything's more efficient. Now there's more organization and more focus. Coaches are more specific as to exactly what they want."
Adds Holiday, "The overall instruction is more simple. We're not trying new things out all the time. We have a set playbook, and each week we get better at it. It's simple, and it works."
One of the staff's goals is to loosen up the off-the-field atmosphere. Staid team dinners of the past, described as "militaristic," have become more social. Players are also given more time to themselves, especially when they're on the road. "Our philosophy is, if the player is refreshed in his mind and focused, he has an opportunity to play better," says offensive line coach Mike Dembrock." Adds kicker Nicholas Setta, whose 46-yard field goal with 10:41 left in the fourth quarter put the Irish up 25-17 and proved to be the margin of victory, "Overall, we're just more relaxed. We feel like we're able to do our own thing more and focus on what we personally have to do to get better."
With four winnable games ahead (at Michigan State, home for Stanford and Pitt, at Air Force), the Irish have a chance to march unbeaten into Tallahassee for an Oct. 26 date against Florida State. But Willingham is wisely cautious about his team's surprising start. To understand why, look no further than his predecessor, Bob Davie, whose five-year tenure in South Bend is widely regarded as a failure despite two 9-3 seasons and three bowl appearances. In Davie's second season No. 22-ranked Notre Dame beat No. 5 Michigan at home 36-20 (the Irish's last victory over a Top 10 team before last Saturday). The next week Davie's team lost by 22 to Michigan State. When asked about long-term prospects, Willing-ham says, "I don't have anything like a five-year plan. After living in the Bay Area and being around dotcoms, you know things change so fast, you can't afford to have a five-year plan. We're just about winning today. That's the goal: Win today."
In South Bend, where victories are no longer taken for granted, the Irish faithful are happy to embrace those words.