This was how it was supposed to be all along. But not until this moment had these Notre Dame players heard the voices in their old stadium rise like this, howling as they did with 21 seconds remaining in the game. When quarterback Carlyle Holiday took a knee, and then stood and raised his arms and face to the sky, he summoned a sea of green onto the field—fans coming from every direction, many wearing T-shirts that read RETURN TO GLORY. "Wow," gasped senior receiver Arnaz Battle, engulfed by the frenzied mob. "At times like this it all comes back to you—why you came here in the first place. You came here expecting moments like this. The time's finally come."
Perhaps the celebration was excessive for a game in mid-September; the Irish, after all, are merely 3-0. But for Notre Dame, last Saturday's 25-23 victory over then No. 6 Michigan in front of 80,795 in a sun-rinsed Notre Dame Stadium—a win that vaulted the Irish from 20th to 12th in this week's AP poll—wasn't just a thrilling upset over a longtime rival. It also marked the revival of a program that had suffered two losing seasons in the past three, the worst stretch of Notre Dame football in 15 years. Add last winter's George O'Leary debacle and the dismissal last spring of four players accused of rape, and the Golden Dome had never looked so tarnished.
In coach Tyrone Willingham, hired two weeks after O'Leary's resignation ( O'Leary stepped down after five days on the job when he was found to have lied on his r�sum�), Irish fans believe they've found their savior. "When I arrived, the players were eager to get on with the business of being a good football team and program again," says Willingham, who came to South Bend after seven years as coach at Stanford. "I got a sense of great hope and eagerness. A sense that they know this is Notre Dame, that they know what Notre Dame stands for and that they'd like to get back to being Notre Dame. It was clear they were looking for someone to help them do that."
No one foresaw such a quick improvement from last year's 5-6 team-Saturday's win was the Irish's second this season over a ranked opponent—but even more surprising than the instant success is the manner in which it has come: not with a revamped offense but with a hard-hitting, opportunistic defense. Willing-ham has long been regarded as a brilliant offensive mind; his Cardinal led the Pac-10 last year in total offense (451.5 yards per game), rushing offense (201.0 yards per game) and scoring (37.1 points per game). But his West Coast offense has yet to click in South Bend. Notre Dame didn't score an offensive touchdown in its first two games, and Holiday still hasn't thrown a touchdown pass.
Nevertheless, the Irish are off to their best start in six years. All through the off-season Willingham stressed the need for players to come up with exceptional individual performances. During one of his first spring practices he asked his men, "Who wants to be a star?" The players gazed blankly at one another. "That wasn't the response we were looking for," says defensive coordinator Kent Baer, one of six assistants Willingham brought with him from Stanford. "We wanted everyone to raise their hands. We like to ask the kids, 'When it comes to crunch time, who's going to step up and make the big play?' "
On Saturday, after the Wolverines got the ball back on their own 30 with 1:25 remaining and Notre Dame up by two, Willingham gathered his defense on the sideline and again posed the question: "Who wants to be a star?" He then pointed to senior cornerback Shane Walton, who two minutes earlier had swatted away a two-point conversion pass from Michigan quarterback John Navarre that would have tied the game. Walton answered the challenge, capping a spectacular afternoon—he had already forced a second-quarter fumble and recovered another in the third—by intercepting Navarre's fourth-and-15, last-gasp pass.
Indeed, the two loudest responses so far to Willingham's challenge have come from Walton and junior Vontez Duff, Walton's close friend and fellow cornerback. Duff had game-clinching plays in the Irish's first two games—a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter to seal a 22-0 victory against then 21st-ranked Maryland on Aug. 31 and a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown to snap a tie in a 24-17 victory over Purdue a week later. "V-Duff and I, we feed off of each other," says Walton. "We're one; we're a unit."
Yet the two could scarcely be more different. Duff is one of the more reticent players on the team. Walton is a constant yapper who enjoys getting in a receiver's face. Duff was a blue-chip prospect out of Copperas Cove High in Texas and a starter by his sophomore year in South Bend. Walton, a standout receiver at the private Bishop's School in La Jolla, Calif., was recruited to play soccer at Notre Dame; no major program offered him a football scholarship. As a freshman in the fall of 1998, Walton earned second-team All-Big East soccer honors, but a month after the season ended, the 5'11" 185-pounder joined the football team's winter conditioning program as a walk-on and by spring was on the roster as a cornerback. Soccer's loss was football's gain. "With his soccer background, Shane's greatest strength is his feet," says Baer. "He's extremely quick and has the ability to cover so much ground so well."
Duff, too, is quick (his 4 x 100-meter team in high school was second in the state championships and had the fourth-fastest time in the country in 2000), but with his thick 5'11", 194-pound frame, he can also play physical. He didn't move into the starting lineup until the fourth game of last season but still finished with 25 tackles and three interceptions, and he was a key reason why the Irish emerged with the nation's 10th-best pass defense in 2001. Duff knows plenty about shouldering loads: His father, Warren, died when Vontez was two, and after his mother, Wynoka, remarried and later divorced, Vontez took care of his three younger siblings while his mom worked long hours at a juvenile detention center. Tattooed on his neck are his parents' names, one on each side. "He's quiet," says Baer, "but Vontez brings so much strength, mentally and physically."
The big plays have yet to come for the offense, but not for lack of effort. At last Friday's team luncheon, a ritual that takes place before every home game, the event's emcee asked his guest, offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick, "Are we going to see you guys throw the ball down the field?" A grinning Diedrick answered, "You can count on it." As the 2,000 fans in attendance cheered, Diedrick leaned over to Battle, who was seated next to him, and whispered, "Our opener."