Notre Dame Football: Looking back at Irish VS Maryland, 2002

For this week’s Throwback Thursday post, I’ll be looking back at Notre Dame’s 2002 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 of any sport in Notre Dame history and only one of three black coaches coaching Division IA football programs at the time. He was the first Notre Dame head football coach to win 10 games in his freshman season. He was named Coach of the Year, led the Irish back to glory and was declared 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 started the 2002 10-win season with a great 22-0 win over Maryland on the road. It was Notre Dame’s first shutout since beating Navy 30-0 in 1998. Vontez Duff became the first in kickoff classic history to return a punt for a touchdown, while Nick Setta set five field goals for a kickoff Classic record up, 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 return Vontez Duff was poised to open the game. With Notre Dame already leading 9-0 over No. 21 Maryland in the Kickoff Classic, Duff took a punt after the Terrapins’ first possession in the second half. He dodged two defenders and rushed for 76 yards for the first Notre Dame touchdown of the season and the longest punt return in the Kickoff Classic’s 20-year history. It was the only touchdown of the night for both teams.

The Return to Glory had begun, and in breathtaking fashion. Across the Hudson River from Manhattan, new head coach Tyrone Willingham led his team onto the field at Giants Stadium to prove to the 72,903 fans, mostly Irish supporters, and a national television audience that his team was a vast improvement from last season would have. The 2002 season, the search for team identity, and the Willingham era all began 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 immediately Irish fans knew that offense had changed. On Notre Dame’s first-ever offensive game of the night, junior quarterback Carlyle Holiday attempted a pass, something rarely seen in a first-down play during Bob Davie’s tenure, let alone the first game of the game.

“That was very refreshing,” said senior wide receiver Arnaz Battle. “It just goes to show that we’re keeping the defense off guard.” The pass was completed to junior wide receiver Omar Jenkins for a 7-yard gain. Suddenly, early in the game, the Irish had the ball at the Maryland 41-yard line. The new offensive looked promising.

Holiday had been dismissed as nothing more than a speedy scrambler and option quarterback, but he took command of the West Coast’s new offense with confident skill. He completed a career-high 17 of 27 for 226 yards and no interceptions. At halftime, he had already thrown for 150 yards, a number that dwarfed the record he set against Tennessee last season.

“That’s a fun offense;” said Holiday. “I knew I could throw the ball. We wanted to be really aggressive and bring a defensive mentality on offense.”

“I was very happy with [Holiday’s] play,” said offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick. “From the start with a very new offense I felt he did a very good job.”

The passing game worked so well that Holiday was able to distribute the ball to eight different receivers. Jenkins led the receiving corps with five receptions for 85 yards. The fight ended with four receptions and 68 yards, 28 more than he had all of last season. His longest was a 29-yard reception in the first quarter on an inside bubblescreen. In this game, Battle was just one step away from escaping the last defender and running to the end zone.

When asked how this season’s west coast offense differed from Ireland’s offense a year ago, the head coach replied with Willinghamesque brevity: “Night. Day.”

Despite the Air Attack’s newfound success and an average start at the Maryland 38-yard line, Notre Dame’s offense failed to find the end zone. At the end of six possessions, four of them in the first half alone, the Irish challenged senior field kicker Nick Setta to kick a field goal. He hit five of them, including a career-high 51 yards, to open the scoring 5-01 in the first quarter. The 55-yarder he attempted during Notre Dame’s opening series stayed just off the bar. In the first half, Setta also scored from 32 and 18 meters for a 9-0 half-time lead. After 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 the Most Valuable Player award.

Ground play proved a challenge for Notre Dame’s offense at times, as the Irish rushed for 130 yards on 45 ground attempts. Runners-up Ryan Grant and Rashon Powers-Neal combined for 99 yards and 31 carries. The penalties also caused many a setback for the Irish offensive. At the beginning of the second possession of the night, the offensive line was marked twice in a row for false starts. A total of five false starts were required of the Irish, which added to the II penalty of a total of 80 yards.

But when the Irish offense shot itself in the foot, the defense came through as true heroes, keeping the defending ACC champions scoreless. The 22-0 win over Maryland was Notre Dame’s first shutout against a high-ranking opponent since No. 5 Alabama’s 7-0 win in 1980.

“Any time a team this balanced from last year gets a shutout, it’s almost unbelievable,” Willingham said. “We were pumped to play the game with a new team and a new coach.”

The Irish defense, which had been overshadowed by all the hype surrounding Notre Dame’s revamped offense, made the difference in the game despite being without last year’s lead 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 made a big move in Watson’s absence by finishing with eight tackles and a sack. Efforts like that of Walton and Hoyte limited the Terrapins to 156 yards in total attack and 18:56 in possession.

“I want people to look at our offense,” Walton said. “That’s good. We’re going to be silent assassins on defense.”

Maryland was injured without all-American traffic jam Bruce Perry, who was out with an injury. Their running game was completely shut down by the Irish Defense Unit. On 21 carries, the Terrapins could only muster a meager effort of 16 yards. The passing game in Maryland was not much more spectacular. Quarterback Scott McBrien was replaced by Chris Kelley in the second half. The Terrapins quarterback duo put on a modest performance together, completing 12 of 32 passes for 117 yards and three interceptions.

This Irish victory was credited to a suffocating defense and large special teams rather than a flashy offensive performance. Zero offensive touchdowns don’t look good on paper. But the lackluster offensive performance didn’t deter Willingham. “I’m only happy with one thing – the win,” he said. “If we won with half points, I would be happy.”

The Irish, who ran shaken and confused from a field in West Lafayette 13 months ago, emerged from the splendor of Manhattan across the river as confident, triumphant athletes poised to carve a niche in Notre Dame football history .

Cheers & GO IRISH!

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