The Gold Standard A 3-0 start under new coach Tyrone Willingham has the Fighting Irish faithful hoping Notre Dame's luster has been restored

September 22, 2002

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 resume), 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. Willingham 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 4x100-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."

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, Willingham 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.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO GETTING THE IDEA Though he has yet to toss a touchdown pass, Holiday finally led the Irish offense to pay dirt against Michigan. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (TOP) ONE WAY OR ANOTHER Willingham has installed the West Coast offense, but so far the defense has done the heavy lifting. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (TOP) OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS Justin Tuck and his hard-hitting mates recovered three fumbles and picked Navarre once. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER SHANE GANG Walton was swarmed after his game-clinching interception.

In one of his first practices Willingham asked his men, "Who
wants to be a star?" The players gazed blankly at one another.

"We're not trying new things," says Holiday. "We have a set
playbook, and each week we get better at it. It's simple, and
it works."

"We didn't know how the previous system was run when we got
here," says defensive coordinator Baer. "We didn't really care."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)