Ty Willingham has researched and embraced Notre Dame's rich tradition. He can tell you about Rockne and Leahy. He can talk to you about Ara and the winning. He must of skipped a few pages of the ND tradition. Hey coach, first-year Notre Dame coaches do not start 3-0 and beat Michigan their first try. Notre Dame fans will let this oversight slide however.
It took all of one play, the first offensive play from scrimmage to understand that this Irish team came to win. Carlyle Holiday dropped back and showed his arm strength on a streak pattern to Arnaz Battle that was just a shade overthrown. Don't worry Carlyle, that shade was probably years of frustration at never being able to do that. You can complete the next one and you did. Holiday took the next play from scrimmage and hit freshman wide receiver Maurice Stovall for 41 yards and put Notre Dame into position to challenge for their first offensive touchdown.
Notre Dame eventually moved the ball to the Michigan 1 yard line and
Ryan Grant forced his way into the end zone for Notre Dame's first offensive touchdown of the 2002 season. You could hear the exhale all the way in Omaha Nebraska where I was sitting. Notre Dame can score offensive touchdowns and they can play with Michigan. Can they beat Michigan? Ty believes they can.
What we saw next were mental mistakes, big plays and a lot of defense. Holiday threw an ill-advised pass to Michigan cornerback Marlin Jackson. Fumbles, penalties, a safety, some solid rushing and big plays stopped on both sides by more mental mistakes. All in all, both teams had 3 fumbles and one interception each. I kept yelling at my television "You can't beat Michigan if you have 4 turnovers." Well, you can if Michigan also turns the ball over 4 times.
What Notre Dame fans need to be excited about is how this head coach has led his team to victory. When Michigan went up 17-16 and dominated the third quarter, I know what you were thinking. I was thinking the same thing, "Here we go again." Notre Dame came out firing once again in the fourth quarter and the chains were once again taken off Carlyle Holiday. He responded with two beautiful passes to Omar Jenkins to put Notre Dame into position for the go ahead 3 yard touchdown run by tailback Ryan Grant.
I am not sure what was more impressive to me. Was it the fact that Willingham motivated this team to respond or that this offensive unit said "It's time to make a play" and they and certainly Holiday were up to the task. No matter what people will say today about this game, this was clearly the turning point of the game and something that Notre Dame fans should be excited about.
We should not forget about the defense. The Notre Dame defense held Michigan to 91 total yards of rushing. I am going to guess that Coach Baer will take that any day. They were ripping at the arms of every player touching the football. They were stout and they were nasty. They bent but they did not break. This defense has play-makers and they continue to make plays at just the right time.
I knew when Michigan scored their final touchdown to make it a 2 point game that someone would step up and make the play, enter Shane Walton. I also knew that Notre Dame would run three straight plays into the middle of the line of scrimmage and that this defense would be called on again to save the game, something I didn't agree with. Once again, enter Shane Walton and the Notre Dame defense. This defense is as good as it is opportunistic.
Notre Dame might have found a pass rusher in Justin Tuck. Justin Tuck has improved 100% from the Maryland game to Michigan game. If he continues to improve like this, he is going to be one dominating force. I don't know if you noticed but Notre Dame got quite a bit of pressure on Navarre. At the end of the game, they were able to get even more pressure. I don't know how good this defense can be but if they can consistently create a pass rush, very good things are on the horizon.
Nobody has ever called me to ask me to interview for the head coaching job at Notre Dame. That call will likely never come. I am not a college football coach nor will I ever be. My only complaint was the conservatism in play-calling at the end of the game. It worked but Notre Dame fans have witnessed this fail far too many times. I can understand the reasoning behind this and I don't question the call at this game at this time, in the future however...
When the chains were taken off of Holiday, he delivered an outstanding play. I hope this outstanding play will develop some trust between quarterback and offensive coordinator. By the end of the year, I think this staff will have tremendous trust in Holiday and that is when he will truly be a weapon.
As Coach has been preaching, he is about winning. Notre Dame won yesterday and they won because of heart and the belief in themselves. If nothing else, that is refreshing to see and shows that many more great wins are on the horizon. The offense stepped up when they needed to. The defense has stepped up all year. If Notre Dame can continue to improve, you will honestly believe very soon.