Over the course of this week, Irish Eyes will feature a series highlighting the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last three decades.
Wednesday morning's edition: The Best Offensive Players from 2002-2004 – The Willingham Era.
Quarterback Carlyle Holiday (2002)The temptation, of course, would be to select Brady Quinn's sophomore season of 2004, but the future Irish record-setter barely resembled the player he would become under Charlie Weis. In the magical 8-0 start of 2002, Carlyle Holiday did everything he could to help the Irish win. He was a square peg in a round hole: an option quarterback, miscast in the west coast offense (with apologies to Sid Gillman and Bill Walsh). He struggled throwing the football. He struggled staying upright behind an offensive line that failed to protect him (38 sacks allowed for the season), but most importantly, opponents struggled to beat him.
The Irish finished with an 8-1 W/L mark with a healthy Holiday in the contest (USC the blemish) and were just 2-2 when Holiday missed the contest (a home win over Stanford) or succumbed to injury (the miracle win at Michigan State followed by a home loss to BC and bowl defeat at the hands of NC State). His numbers were unspectacular: 1,988 total yards of offense; 13 total touchdowns vs. five interceptions (including a then-school record 126 attempts without a pick), but the '02 Irish brought passion back to the fan base and respectability to the program after the lame duck final months of 2001. And Carlyle Holiday led the way.
Holiday at his best in '02: The sixth-ranked, 7-0 Irish were 11-point underdogs entering Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee to take on No. 11 Florida State. On Notre Dame's first offensive play, the much-maligned Irish offense received an unexpected jolt from Holiday when the Irish leader found WR Arnaz Battle for a 65-yard touchdown bomb and a 7-0 advantage. The Irish never looked back en route to a 34-24 victory over the Seminoles.
Also Considered: Quinn (2004)
Running Back Julius Jones (2003)The 2007 Irish are widely recognized as the school's worst team and offense of the modern era. Without Julius Jones' performance in 2003, the '07 squad would be off the hook for that dubious distinction. Jones was the Irish offense in '03, finishing with 1,268 yards rushing (a 5.5 ypc. average) and 10 touchdowns. He saved the Irish in the home-opening comeback win vs. Washington State, breaking through for 4th Quarter carries of 18, 20, and 19 yards (the go-ahead touchdown after trailing 19-0).
He was a one-man gang in wins over Pittsburgh (24 carries for 262 and two TD); BYU (35 carries for 170 yards and three TD); and Navy (33 carries for 221 yards and two TD); and helped bury Stanford with 23 carries for 218 yards and a score.
Julius Jones returned to the team in 2003 after sitting out the previous season due to academic issues. The Irish won five games in ‘03 (the five detailed above). Luckily we'll never know what the '03 season would have been like without him.
Jones at his best in '03: After the offense gained a mere 49 yards rushing in a Week Four loss at Purdue, Jones and the Irish offensive line exploded all over Pittsburgh in an unlikely 20-14 win in primetime. The Irish entered the contest as the nation's eight-worst rushing attack, but Julius Jones exited Heinz Field as the greatest single-game rusher in Notre Dame Football history, finishing with 262 yards and two touchdowns in the Irish victory.
Running Back Ryan Grant (2002)Before he became the nation's fantasy football sensation in 2007 and before he became the running back Irish fans wanted to replace in 2003 and 2004, Ryan Grant carried a running game on his shoulders in 2002. It was rarely pretty. There were rarely displays of raw athleticism and awe-inspiring bursts of speed, but Ryan Grant nonetheless barreled, clawed, and scratched his way to 1,085 yards and 9 touchdowns for the 10-3 Irish.
He fought for 96 yards vs. Purdue (W); exploded for 132 and two scores vs. Michigan (W); piled up another 90 yards/TD at MSU (W); topped the 100-yard plateau and added his fourth rushing score vs. Stanford (W); scored the game-sealing TD in a defensive struggle vs. Pittsburgh (W); dominated then-undefeated Air Force with 190 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries (W); and finally battled Florida State's run defense for 90 yards and two scores to help Notre Dame to its eight win in as many outings.
You probably remember an injured, beaten-down Ryan Grant suffering through two fumbles while clawing his way to 107 yards in the season-derailing loss to Boston College the following week. Grant was never the same 'back after those first nine games in '02, finishing the regular season with 38 carries for just 97 yards, and he never really approached that level of excellence again until his '07 breakthrough with the Green Bay Packers. But he was one of the few Irish offensive heroes of 2002.
Grant at his best in '02: Grant put the final nail in the coffin in ND's upset win at Florida State. With the Irish leading 27-10 and still 10 minutes remaining in the 4th Quarter, Grant took a 1st and 15 handoff off-tackle and did exactly what critics told us he couldn't: he outran the speedy Seminoles for a 31-yard touchdown.
Honorable Mention: Darius Walker (2004)
Wide Receiver Matt Shelton (2004)The '04 Irish offense lacked continuity. It lacked a reliable possession passing game. And it lacked consistent play up front. What it did not lack was a deep threat. Senior Matt Shelton, he of the four career catches, emerged from obscurity in ‘04 to lead the Irish in yards-per-catch (25.8 – a single-season Irish record), receiving touchdowns (6) and to finish second in receiving yards (515).
Shelton exploded in September, catching eight passes for 243 yards and four touchdowns in wins over Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford. He later added a touchdown catch at Boston College and another deep TD catch (to augment his 123 yards receiving) in the maddening home loss to Pittsburgh; a game that included a 35-yard touchdown catch on 3rd and 4 from Quinn that gave the Irish a 35-31 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Shelton's six TD grabs averaged just over 33 yards per play and gave the offense a spark after more than three seasons of stagnation through two coaching regimes.
Shelton at his best in '04: With the Irish an upsetting 0-1 after a season-opening loss at BYU and trailing 9-0 early in the 3rd Quarter vs. Michigan, Shelton broke free for the first of his six scores that season, hauling in a 46-yard bomb from Brady Quinn to cut the Wolverines lead to 9-7. The Irish offense ignited from there in the 28-20 upset win.
Wide Receiver Arnaz Battle (2002)Ryan Grant carried the load; Carlyle Holiday shouldered the burden; and converted option-quarterback Arnaz Battle gave the Irish offense life in 2002. He paced the squad with 58 receptions for 786 yards and 5 TD and he offered the '02 offense its only game-breaker – a run-after-the-catch receiver that was instrumental in single-score margins vs. Pittsburgh (10 catches) and at Air Force (112 yards).
Battle scored the two touchdowns heard ‘round Irish Nation: a game-opening 65-yard bomb to spark the Irish to an upset win at Florida State and, prior to that, a breathtaking catch and dash to defeat the Spartans in the final minute in East Lansing (detailed below).
Battle at his best in '02: Notre Dame's 11-point lead had evaporated thanks to the sublime (at the time) Charles Rogers. Irish QB Carlyle Holiday was lost to a shoulder injury, and back-up walk-on Pat Dillingham had been exposed for his shortcomings over the previous five Irish possessions. Enter Arnaz Battle: Trailing 17-14 and facing a 2nd at 10 at his own 40, Dillingham hit Battle on a quick hook and the former Irish signal-caller did the rest, turning and racing down the Irish sideline for the game-winning touchdown. It was the best moment of the Willingham era and a play that will forever live in Irish lore.
Honorable Mention: Rhema McKnight (2004), Omar Jenkins (2002)
Tight End Anthony Fasano (2004)Fasano showed a glimpse of his potential as a junior under Willingham in 2004, catching 27 passes for 367 yards and four scores. The junior came alive in Week Four vs. Washington, notching touchdown grabs of 18 and 15 yards and then posted a career-best 155 yards on eight receptions the following week vs. Purdue.
Fasano's best season in an Irish uniform was 2005, but he laid the groundwork in '04 as the school's most complete tight end since Jabari Holloway (1998-2000).
Fasano at his best in '04: With the Irish struggling to move the ball vs. Tennessee (216 yards of total offense) Fasano scored ND's only offensive touchdown – a leaping, bobbling, eight-yard grab to take a 7-3 lead in Notre Dame's 17-13 upset of the Volunteers in Knoxville. The upset over the ninth-ranked SEC power was the '04 team's final win and the only victory over the season's final five games after a 5-2 start.
Later Today: ND's top single-season offensive line performers, 2002-2004.