Over the course of this week, Irish Eyes has featured a series highlighting the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last three decades.
Thursday's edition: Part I of the All-Defensive Team, 2002-2004.
Linebacker Courtney Watson (2002)Watson's 10-game stat line in 2002 (90 total tackles, 10 tackles for lost yardage, three sacks, four interceptions with returns for 123 yards and a touchdown, and four pass breakups) would have been enough to garner Defensive MVP honors for most Irish squads. It was enough to earn Watson a 3rd place finish for the Butkus Award (given to the nation's top linebacker). And it was enough to place Watson on multiple All-American teams, but in 2002 – the year of the defense in South Bend – Watson is remembered as one of many key cogs on a unit that set the standard for playmaking for which all future Irish defenses should aspire.
The junior LB excelled in Irish victories over Michigan State (15 tackles, 3 for lost yardage, and a pass break-up); Stanford (11 tackles and a game-sealing 34-yard interception touchdown) and Florida State (10 tackles and an interception) and added another interception and 12 more tackles in a win at Navy.
CB Shane Walton was the heart, soul, lead playmaker, and MVP of the 2002 Irish defense – but Courtney Watson was the unheralded rock in the middle of the action.
Watson at his best in ‘02: With the score deadlocked at 10 late in the fourth quarter, Watson dropped into coverage to bait Florida State quarterback Chris Rix into his first of two key interceptions. Watson returned the offering 23 yards to the Seminoles' 23-yard line. The play set-up a Nick Setta field goal and a 13-10 ND lead. The Irish then reeled off 21 straight points to take a commanding 34-10 lead in the 34-24 upset win.
Linebacker Courtney Watson (2003)The unexpected severe decline of the '03 Irish football team has unfortunately overshadowed a pair of sterling individual efforts, and one such effort was that the senior middle linebacker. Watson notched a career-high 117 tackles (15 for lost yardage) and 3.5 sacks in 11 games. He created four turnovers: 2 picks, 1 pass breakup that resulted in an interception, and a forced fumble.
His stellar though futile effort in a 37-0 blowout loss to FSU was a microcosm of the season: Watson (11 tackles, three for lost yardage) and DE Justin Tuck showed up (Tuck had five solos and two tackles for loss) while the rest of the squad floundered. In the end, Watson recorded 81 tackles (nine for lost yardage) and two interceptions in seven Irish losses, proving that the best of the best continue to make plays regardless of the circumstances.
Watson at his best in ‘03: Trailing 14-6 midway through the 3rd Quarter at Boston College, Watson slammed Eagles quarterback Quinton Porter for a seven-yard loss on 3rd and goal from the Irish six yard-line. The play limited BC to a field goal and the Irish eventually came back to take a 25-24 advantage late in the contest, only to fall 27-24 on a last-minute Eagles field goal.
Linebacker Mike Goolsby (2002)Goolsby excelled for two separate seasons in the Willingham era (2002 and 2004) and both could have qualified him for a spot on this list, but his breakout year of '02 made the biggest impact on the Irish program. The junior linebacker finished third on the team in tackles (75); paced the squad with 13.5 tackles-for-loss, while adding four sacks, an interception, a pass defended and a forced fumble.
He recorded multiple tackles-for-loss in games vs. Maryland, Purdue and Rutgers, and produced either a tackle-for-loss or turnover in 9 of the team's 12 regular season contests.
Goolsby at his best in ‘02: Goolsby was a one-man wrecking crew in the 24-17 victory over Purdue, finishing with 11 tackles and a forced fumble. Of his 11 stops, three held Boiler ball carriers to two or fewer yards while three others were for lost yardage. Goolsby made the game's final crucial stop, hitting RB Ray Williams for a six-yard loss with Purdue threatening at the ND 30 yard-line on the Boiler's final possession.
Also Considered: Goolsby (2004)
Honorable Mention: Derek Curry (2002, 2003, and 2004); Brandon Hoyte (2004)
Defensive End Justin Tuck (2003)2003 was a frustrating year for a host of Irish players returning from the previous season's dominant defensive effort, but perhaps no defender in Irish history played at such a high individual level with such diminishing team returns as did Justin Tuck during that 5-7 campaign. The junior (second-year player after a redshirt freshman year) posted 19 tackles for lost yardage; a school-record 13.5 sacks for an aggregate loss of 106 yards; 73 total tackles and three forced fumbles.
Tuck recorded his best individual efforts of the season in two Irish victories: first in Pittsburgh – finishing with 10 tackles, 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a pass knockdown at the line. And then in the late-season blowout at Stanford, Tuck exploded for a career-high four sacks (and seven tackles). The game helped Tuck shatter the school's single-season sack mark which stood at 10 (sacks have been recorded since the 1982 season) and was shared by Mike Gann ('84) and Bert Berry ('96).
Tuck at his best in ‘03: Tuck's best effort was fittingly in a losing effort, this time in Chestnut Hill vs. the BC Eagles, as the future All Pro defensive end was instrumental in limiting the nation's leading rusher (entering the contest) Derrick Knight to just 43 yards rushing – 90 below his average on the season – on 23 carries.
Defensive End Ryan Roberts (2002)If you asked 10 Irish fans what player led the sterling 2002 defense in sacks you'd likely be lucky to find one diehard who knew the answer. Fifth-year senior Ryan Roberts had flashed moments of solid football in the past – he excelled in a fill-in role vs. No. 1 Nebraska's vaunted option attack in 2000, and was the quiet starter on an underrated defense (ranked 11th nationally) in 2001 – so it's probably fitting that this 2002 sack leader and his contributions remain relatively unnoticed among Irish faithful.
In addition to pacing the team with eight sacks and leading the defensive linemen with 42 total tackles (24 solo stops), Roberts received the 2002 Lineman of the Year award on a team that limited its opponents to just 2.8 yards per carry.
Roberts shined in a mid-season win over Pittsburgh, recovering a fumble in the backfield; registering a third-down sack; a tackle behind the line on 2nd and goal (the Irish held); and three more stops for no gain to force Panthers punts in a 14-6 defensive slugfest.
Roberts at his best in ‘02: Roberts knifed through the Purdue line for two second-half, third-down sacks vs. quarterback Kyle Orton to force Boilers' punts in Notre Dame's 24-17 victory. The Irish defense accounted for two of the team's touchdowns while the defensive special teams scored the other.
Roberts played a key role the following week in the last-minute victory in East Lansing, recording a third-down sack of Spartans quarterback Jeff Smoker; a third-and-one stop of RB Dawan Moss to force a 4th Quarter punt; and finally, a sack on the game's penultimate play with the Spartans threatening at the Irish 42-yard line.
Also Considered: Justin Tuck (2004)
Honorable Mention: Kyle Budinscak (2002 and 2004) and Justin Tuck (2002)
On Tap: Part II of the All-Willingham Defense.