Wild Ride

The 12th-ranked team in our Top 15 countdown – the 2002 Fighting Irish.

From 1980 through 2009, Notre Dame completed 30 football seasons. Each week this summer, IrishEyes will profile and rank the top 15 teams of that span, counting down to our No. 1 overall Irish squad to be highlighted during the final week of August training camp.

Today, IrishEyes continues the countdown with our No. 12 ranked squad – the 2002 Fighting Irish (10-3).

2002 – By the Numbers

Tyrone Willingham took over a program that had alternated between solid ('96, '98, '08) and poor seasons ('97, '99, '01) since the tail end of the Lou Holtz era. The pieces were in place defensively as Bob Davie's '01 Irish ranked No. 14 nationally (and 10th overall vs. the pass) but the offense was in shambles (finishing 110th overall out of 115 Division 1-A teams) with a hodgepodge of mismatched talent and scheme.

Both trends would continue through Year One of the Willingham era, though with much different results.

Offense: Willingham and offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick attempted to fit a square peg in a round hole, installing their version of the West Coast offense. Both the short passing game and the rushing attack – staples of the offensive scheme – were inconsistent, as the squad finished 68th nationally in rushing and 91st through the air.

Defense: Conversely, new defensive coordinator Kent Baer's defense played at a heroic level in 2002, holding opponents to 2.8 yards-per-carry (10th in the nation) while limiting foes to just over 204 passing yards per contest. The defense held nine opponents to two offensive touchdowns or fewer and created 33 turnovers. The '02 Irish held opponents to 16.7 points per game.

Notables: statistical and otherwise

  • Arnaz Battle was Notre Dame's most explosive offensive weapon. The former starting quarterback-turned-wideout emerged as a 5th year senior, catching 58 passes for 786 yards and 5 touchdowns. Battle's presence as a playmaking threat allowed the Irish to remain conservatively offensively, featuring the ground game while keeping a miscast passer, quarterback Carlyle Holiday out of repeated dangerous down-and-distance situations.

    Holiday, a natural option quarterback, performed admirably, hitting 10 touchdown passes vs. five interceptions while completing 50 percent of his throws for just under 1,800 yards. Holiday ranked second in rushing yards gained (432) but his 200 yards lost – largely the result of 30-plus sacks allowed by his offensive line – limited his final tally. (Holiday ran for 666 yards on 156 attempts as a half-season starter in '01.)

  • After a non-descript freshman season, tailback Ryan Grant emerged as the team's go-to runner, rambling for 1,085 yards on 261 grueling carries – the highest single season total by an Irish runner of the past decade. Grant, who led the squad with 9 touchdowns (all rushing) topped the 90-yard mark in seven contests, including a 190-yard explosion at then-No.18 Air Force.

  • Senior inside linebacker Courtney Watson put forth one of the most compete seasons at the position in recent program history, leading the team with 90 tackles (10 for loss) while recording 4 interceptions (one touchdown) 3 sacks, and 3 passes defended. Aiding Watson's effort was junior middle linebacker Mike Goolsby, who paced the squad with 13 tackles for loss while adding 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble, an interception and 3 passes defended.

  • The defense's ring leader was 5th-year senior cornerback Shane Walton. The former walk-on and Irish soccer player recorded one of the best individual seasons at cornerback in team history, finishing with 7 interceptions, 7 additional pass break-ups, and 5 tackles-for-loss while forcing two fumbles. Walton additionally preserved a 25-23 victory over Michigan with a pass deflection of a two-point conversion in the final minutes. The confident coverman finished third in the balloting for the Bronco Nagurski Award, which recognizes the nation's top defensive player.

    Walton's counterpart on the corner was junior Vontez Duff who finished one yard shy of becoming the first player in Division 1-A history to return a punt, kickoff, interception, and fumble recovery for a score in the same season. Duff accounted for four turnovers and three touchdowns (punt return, kick return, interception return), and paired with Walton to form one of the best single-season cornerback duos in program history. His 33-yard interception touchdown with 5:09 remaining served as the game-winning score in Week Two vs. Purdue (24-17).

  • Safeties Gerome Sapp and Glen Earl rounded out what remains far-and-away the best secondary at the school in the last 17 seasons. The duo combined for 152 tackles (7 for lost yardage) while accounting for 12 turnovers and picking off six passes. Sapp added leadership, savvy, and athleticism while Earl provided the pop and intimidation factor, ranking as best overall player at the position since Jeff Burris (1990-93).

  • The three-man defensive end rotation of Justin Tuck, Ryan Roberts and Kyle Budinscak provided dominant play off the edge. The trio recorded an aggregate 25 tackles-for-loss and 18 sacks (10 from the first-year contributor Tuck) while breaking up 6 total passes and creating 2 turnovers.

  • Defensive tackles Cedric Hilliard and Darnell Campbell held down the fort inside for Baer's 4-3 defense, combining for 13 tackles for loss and 8 sacks.

2002 – Personnel Highlights

The 2002 Irish defense was blessed with playmakers at each level of the defense and the offense's leading rusher and receiver remain active in the NFL entering the 2010 season.

Coaching Staff of Note: Mike Denbrock (Offensive line) - Denbrock has returned as a member of Brian Kelly's staff to coach the 2010 tight ends unit. Future Florida and Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison (defensive line) – Mattison was the program's defensive coordinator and lone staff holdover from the Bob Davie era. Bill Diedrick (offensive coordinator) and Kent Baer (defensive coordinator) also coached with Willingham at Stanford. Four decade coaching veteran Trent Walters (wide receivers) went on to coach the same position for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2004-07.

  • Team Captains: WR Arnaz Battle, OL Sean Mahan, S Gerome Sapp, and CB Shane Walton.
  • Unsung Heroes: Senior wide receiver Omar Jenkins: The senior finished second on the squad with 37 receptions and three touchdowns while averaging an impressive 17.1 yards per catch. Jenkins was at his best in some of Notre Dame's toughest contests, finishing with 83 yards vs. Michigan; scoring a touchdown in the upset at Florida State; and providing the difference offensively in the 30-23 comeback win over Navy, recording a career-high 166 yards on 4 receptions including the game-winning 67-yard touchdown with just over two minutes remaining.

  • Outside linebacker Derek Curry: the redshirt-junior is rarely referenced when fans discuss the team's top defenders of the decade, but Curry provided big plays in '02, finishing with 7 tackles-for-loss, 4 sacks, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, and 1 recovery. (He finished his career with 28.5 TFL, and 13 sacks, while accounting for 12 turnovers.)

  • Top position group: Defensive backs (detailed above). Three of the four starters earned post-season All-America mention and the fourth, Earl, made big plays while bringing the hammer on hits throughout the season. Prior to the debacle at USC in the regular-season finale, the '02 defensive backfield ranked among the most productive units – on either side of the football – in modern-day program history.

  • Seniors drafted following the season: Jeff Faine (1st Round); OG Sean Mahan (5th); CB Shane Walton (5th); OT Jordan Black (5th); S Gerome Sapp (6th); WR Arnaz Battle (6th); OT Brennan Curtin (6th)

  • Award Winners/All-America Selections: ILB Courtney Watson (1st Team ESPN All-American); cornerback Shane Walton (Consensus 1st Team All-American; one of three finalists for National Defensive Player of the Year); Center Jeff Faine (1st Team ESPN All-American; 2nd team A.P. All-American); CB Vontez Duff (3rd Team A.P. All-American).

Waiting in the Wings: The following future stars played subordinate roles for the 2002 squad:

  • Freshman wide receiver Maurice Stovall: 18 receptions, 312 yards, 3 TD (Stovall also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated following the win at MSU).
  • Junior nose tackle Greg Pauley: 11 tackles, 3 for lost yardage.
  • Freshman wide receiver Rhema McKnight: 9 receptions, 91 yards.
  • Sophomore wide receiver Matt Shelton: one reception for 18 yards. .
  • Sophomore linebacker Corey Mays: 4 tackles
  • Junior linebacker Jerome Collins: one tackle. Collins played four seasons as an NFL linebacker, winning two Super Bowl rings as an inactive member of the Colts ('06) and the Giants ('07).

On-Field Results/Irish in the Polls

The Irish finished 5-6 in 2001, far removed from the final Top 25 poll. After shutting out Maryland 22-0 in the kick-off classic, the '02 Irish entered the A.P. Poll at No. 23. A home win over a solid Purdue squad bumped the Irish three spots upward before a home upset over No. 7 Michigan rocketed the Irish to No. 12 in the poll. Notre Dame hit No. 9 with a Week Five blowout of Stanford, then rose one spot each week with wins over Pittsburgh, at Air Force and finally at No. 11 Florida State.

The Irish peaked at No. 3 in the BCS rankings heading into their contest and eventual loss to unranked but solid (9-4 final record) Boston College.

  • Bowl Result: Handled by North Carolina State, 28-6.
  • Record vs. Top 25 Teams: 4-2
  • Record vs. teams that finished with a losing record: 4-0
  • Home W/L: 5-1 Road W/L: 4-1 (neutral 1-0)
  • Best Win(s): Though a Week Three upset of No. 7 Michigan served as a microcosm of the season, Notre Dame's upset win at Florida State was the 2002 team's biggest victory. The undefeated and No. 6-ranked Irish headed into Doak Campbell Stadium as 11-point underdogs to the 11th-ranked Seminoles. Beloved locally and by Irish fans nationwide, the squad was nonetheless viewed by outsiders as living on borrowed time.

    But few doubters remained following a second-play touchdown bomb from Holiday to Battle and nearly 59 minutes of defensive dominance as the upstart Irish grabbed a commanding 34-10 lead with less than two minutes remaining.

    The defense uncharacteristically failed to finish strong, yielding two touchdowns in a one-minute span to end the contest – the team never again approached a level of consistency befitting its No. 3 national ranking as it headed into Game Nine vs. Boston College.

    The win at FSU dropped the Seminoles to an astounding 84-5-1 at Doak Campbell Stadium. It was likely the greatest victory of the decade for the Notre Dame football program.

  • Toughest Loss: Boston College. The Irish suffered seven fumbles (3 lost) and two interceptions, including a crippling interception touchdown courtesy of a brain-freeze by backup walk-on QB Pat Dillingham that laid the groundwork for the most painful loss suffered by the program in nearly a decade.

    The Irish entered the contest with renewed confidence, national recognition, shiny new lima-bean green jerseys, eight weeks of momentum, a No. 3 ranking in the initial BCS poll, and just four contests and one spot in the rankings removed from a berth in the BCS Title game. They exited Notre Dame Stadium that same Saturday with a 14-7 defeat, robbed of the magic, confidence, belief and focus that had accompanied Willingham's first eight Irish conquests.

    The team's 8-0 start was the best since the '93 squad began the season at 10-0. A Tyrone Willingham-coached squad would never again win more than three consecutive contests at the college level.

  • Worst Loss: USC. Outplayed and outclassed, the Irish succumbed 41-14 in the first of three 31-point blowouts by Pete Carroll over Willingham. The Irish defense was beaten down by 10 weeks of carrying the load and the game, but overwhelmed Holiday faced the nation's hottest team and defense with a gash on his (passing) thumb.

    But to be blunt, the Irish were overmatched by a Trojans team that, after two early season losses, likely ranked as one of the best end-season squads of the Carroll era.

  • Head-shaking Win: Purdue. The Irish totaled just 203 yards and failed to score an offensive touchdown, instead notching a fumble recovery TD of 54 yards by Gerome Sapp; a fumble recovery TD on the ensuing kick-off courtesy of Lionel Bolen; and the aforementioned game-winning interception return for a score by Vontez Duff in the 24-17 victory.

  • Play of the Year: With their starting quarterback sidelined by an in-game shoulder injury; with the opponent's wide receiver putting on an epic display of circus catches vs. near-perfect coverage; and trailing 17-14 in its own territory with just over 1:20 remaining, the magic of Notre Dame football silenced Spartan Stadium courtesy of walk-on QB Pat Dillingham.

    Facing 2nd and 10 from his own 40-yard line, Dillingham, just 2-5 for 24 yards and an interception on the day, hit 5th-year senior receiver Arnaz Battle on a 10-yard hook. The future NFL starter did the rest, pivoting outside and sprinting down the Irish sideline for the game-winning 64-yard touchdown reception and a thrilling 21-17 victory: the first for the Irish over the Spartans since 1994.

2002 – Final Analysis

Why the 2002 Irish should rank higher/are appropriately ranked: They probably shouldn't rank higher, but the '02 defense was special, and would give the squad a chance in a head-to-head matchup vs. either of the next two teams to be featured in our countdown or any of those previously reviewed (links located below).

When compared to our No. 13 ranked team of 2006, the '02 squad finished 4-2 vs. Top 25 teams; the '06 squad just 1-3. The '02 Irish were the first team in school history to win back-to-back road games over ranked opponents and the first Notre Dame squad since 1990 to post three wins away from home (including neutral site games) over ranked opponents in the same season.

Why the 2002 Irish should rank lower: They couldn't score vs. solid defenses without a short field, and though the element of luck in sports generally favors the aggressor, the '02 Irish inexplicably received every break imaginable through the season's first eight contests. In the ninth, nearly everything that could go wrong did, and the Irish were rendered ineffective vs. an average Boston College team.

The '02 group was alarmingly thin and it showed when nose tackle Cedric Hilliard missed the contest vs. Boston College, and both he and Sapp sat out in the near-disaster at Navy.

Additionally, workhorse tailback Ryan Grant wore down in November and the Irish had no viable replacement to spell him in the backfield. The same was true at quarterback, where walk-on backup Pat Dillingham was the only answer behind an oft-dinged Holiday, who's absence contributed greatly to the Boston College loss and bowl defeat vs. N.C. State.

The Eye Test/Atmosphere Surrounding the 2002 Squad: One word: Disbelief.

The Irish streaked to 2-0 and into the Top 20 without the benefit of a single offensive touchdown. Through the season's first nine contests, the defense and special teams allowed just 11 offensive touchdowns and somehow scored Eight of their own.

Hindsight is 20/20, and the '02 season is now viewed by Irish fans as fool's gold, but the majority of the fan base was enamored with the team's toughness, penchant for big hits, and the inspired defensive play of Willingham's first squad. Though the season ended in disappointment, in a vacuum, the 2002 season was a wild ride, one led by the program's best defense of the decade and likely its top group since the dominant unit from 1993.

Next Week: Our No. 11-ranked Irish team of the last 30 seasons.

Honorable Mention the 1986 Irish

No. 15 the 2000 Irish

No. 14 the 1998 Irish

No. 13 the 2006 Irish

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