For this week’s Throwback Thursday post, I’m going to look back at the 2002 Notre Dame season opener on the road (at Giants Stadium) against Maryland. It was Tyrone Willingham’s first year as head coach of the Fighting Irish football team. He was the first black head coach in any sport in Notre Dame history, and only one of three black coaches coaching Division I-A football programs at the time. He was the first Notre Dame football head coach to win 10 games in his first season. He won Coach of the Year, returned the Irish to glory, and was proclaimed a “legend in the making.” Well, we all know how that turned out.
The following excerpt, written by Jimmy Atkinson, is from the 2002 Scholastic Notre Dame Football Review. The Irish kicked off the 10 win 2002 season with a big 22-0 win over Maryland on the road. It was Notre Dame’s first shutout since the 30-0 win over Navy in 1998. Vontez Duff became the first in kickoff classic history to return a punt for a touchdown, Nick Setta set a kickoff classic record, kicking five field goals, and Shane Walton had three picks. The sky was the limit for Willingham and his team.
Standing back on his own 24-yard line, junior cornerback and punt returner Vontez Duff was ready to break the game open. With Notre Dame already holding a 9-0 lead over No. 21 Maryland in the Kickoff Classic, Duff took a punt after the Terrapins’ first possession of the second half. He dodged two defenders and ran 76 yards for the first Notre Dame touchdown of the season and the longest punt return in the 20-year history of the Kickoff Classic. It was the only touchdown of the night for either team.
The “Return to Glory” had begun, and in stunning fashion. Just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, new head coach Tyrone Willingham led his team out onto the Giants Stadium field to prove to the 72,903 fans, mostly Irish supporters, and a national television audience that his team had greatly improved from last season. The 2002 season, the search for team identity, and the Willingham era all started there in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Willingham was billed as someone who would bring much-needed inspiration to a previously dull Irish offensive attack. Willingham was the name, West Coast offense was his game. And right off the bat, Irish fans knew that this offense had changed. On Notre Dame’s very first offensive play of the night, junior quarterback Carlyle Holiday attempted a pass, something rarely seen on any first down play, let alone the first play of the game, during Bob Davie’s tenure.
“That was very refreshing,” said senior wide receiver Arnaz Battle. “It just goes to show that we’re keeping defenses off guard.” The pass was completed to junior wide receiver Omar Jenkins for a 7-yard gain. All of a sudden, the Irish had the ball at Maryland’s 41-yard line early in the game. The new offense looked promising.
Holiday had been dismissed as nothing more than a quick scrambler and an option quarterback, but he took command of the new West Coast offense with confident ability. He completed a career-high 17-of-27 for 226 yards and no interceptions. At halftime, he already had thrown for 150 yards, a number that eclipsed the game-high mark he set last season against Tennessee.
“This is a fun offense;” said Holiday. “I knew I could throw the ball. We really wanted to be aggressive and take a defensive mentality on offense.”
“I was very pleased with [Holiday’s] play,” said offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick. “From a first start with a very new offense, I thought he did a very good job.”
The passing game worked so well, in-fact, that Holiday was able to spread the ball to eight different receivers. Jenkins led the receiving corps with five receptions for 85 yards. Battle finished with four receptions and 68 yards, 28 more than he had had all of last season. His longest was a 29-yard reception in the first quarter on an inside bubblescreen. On that play, Battle was just one step away from escaping the last defender and racing to the end zone.
When asked how this season’s West Coast offense differed from the Irish offense of a year ago, the head coach responded with Willinghamesque brevity: “Night. Day.”
Despite the newfound success of the air attack and having an average start at the Maryland 38-yard line, the Notre Dame offense failed to find the end zone. At the end of six possessions, including four in the first half alone, the Irish called on senior place kicker Nick Setta to kick a field goal. He connected on five of them, including a career high 51-yarder to open the scoring with 5:01 in the first quarter. The 55-yarder he attempted during Notre Dame’s opening series fell just short of the crossbar. In the first half, Setta also hit from 32 and 18 yards to provide a 9-0 halftime lead. Following Duff’s punt return for a touchdown, he added two more field goals from 46 and 24 yards in the third and fourth quarters. His five field goals set a Kickoff Classic record and earned him Most Valuable Player honors.
The ground game proved a challenge at times for the Notre Dame offense, as the Irish tallied 130 yards on 45 ground attempts. Sophomore tailbacks Ryan Grant and Rashon Powers-Neal combined for 99 yards on 31 carries. Penalties also were the source of many a setback for the Irish offense. To start its second possession of the night, the offensive line was flagged twice in a row for false start fouls. In all, five false starts were called on the Irish, adding to the II-penalty total of 80 yards.
But when the Irish offense shot itself in the foot, the defense came through as the true hero and held the defending ACC Champion scoreless. The 22~0 win over Maryland was Notre Dame’s first shutout over a ranked opponent since defeating No. 5 Alabama 7-0 in 1980.
“Anytime you get a shutout on such a balanced team coming out of last year, it’s almost unbelievable,” Willingham said. “We were pumped up to play the game with a new team and a new coach.”
The Irish defense, which had been overshadowed by all the hype about Notre Dame’s revamped offense, was the difference in the game, despite being without last year’s leading tackler, injured senior middle linebacker Courtney Watson. Senior cornerback Shane Walton tied a school record with three interceptions, the only turnovers in the game by either team. Red-shirt freshman linebacker Brandon Hoyte stepped up big in Watson’s absence by finishing with eight tackles and one sack. Efforts like Walton’s and Hoyte’s limited the Terrapins to 156 yards of total offense and 18:56 in time of possession.
“I want people to look at our offense,” Walton said. “That’s fine. We’ll be silent assassins on defense.”
Maryland was hurting without all-American tailback Bruce Perry, who was out with an injury. Their running game was shut down entirely by the Irish defensive unit. On 21 carries, the Terrapins were able to muster only a meager 16-yard effort. The Maryland passing game was not much more spectacular. Quarterback Scott McBrien was replaced by Chris Kelley in the second half. The Terrapins’ quarterback duo combined for a humble performance, completing 12-of-32 passes for 117 yards and three interceptions.
This Irish win was chalked up to a stifling defense and big special teams plays rather than a flashy offensive effort. Zero offensive touchdowns doesn’t look good on paper. But the lackluster offensive performance didn’t deter Willingham. “I’m only satisfied with one thing — winning,” he said. “If we won by haIfa point, I’d be satisfied.”
The Irish, who walked off a West Lafayette field 13 months ago shaken and disarrayed, left the glimmer of Manhattan from just across the river as confident, triumphant athletes ready to carve a niche in Notre Dame football history for themselves.
Cheers & GO IRISH!