Sizing up the Irish

SURE, COUGAR HEAD MAN <b>Bill Doba</b> says beating Idaho in the season opener on Aug. 30 in Seattle is one of his most pressing concerns. But you just know a guy who grew up in South Bend and coached pretty much everywhere in Indiana but ol' Notre Dame is really eyeing WSU's Week 2 date with the vaunted Irish.

The Cougs travel to South Bend on Sept. 6 for the first time ever. And make no mistake, hallowed tradition and Touchdown Jesus or not, Doba and his bunch have every intention of coming away with the upset victory in the nationally televised contest.

But it won't be easy, especially for the Cougar offense. And here's a snapshot look why.

Coming off a surprisingly good 10-3 campaign last year in Ty Willingham's first season at the helm, the Irish looked poised for another Top 20 finish in 2003.

Quarterback Carlyle Holiday should be much more comfortable in the pocket after a year in Willingham's West Coast system, but 6-foot-6 youngsters who were born to run this offense (redshirt freshman Chris Olsen, incoming freshman Brady Quinn) are starting to line up behind him.

Ryan Grant was banged up all season and still ran for over 1,000 yards, and Julius Jones could return to the backfield after spending last year getting his academics in order. Spring priority No. 1 was to rebuild the offensive line. Results are pending.

The Irish defense should be tough up the middle, where a quartet of fifth-year seniors anchor things --- Darrell Campbell, Cedric Hilliard, Courtney Watson and Vontez Duff.

Duff, by the way, became the first player in school history to return an interception, a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same season.

Progress report: The 2002 Irish offense failed to find the end zone in either of its first two games or its last two games.

Ty Tallies Ten: Ty Willingham's ten victories were the most ever by a first-year Notre Dame coach.

Collapse: The Irish lost their last two games by a combined score of 72–19.

2002 results: 10–3

Bowl: Lost to NC State 28-6 in the Gator Bowl

Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense, placekicker

2003 Schedule:

S. 6 Washington State
S. 13 at Michigan
S. 20 Michigan State
S. 27 at Purdue
O. 11 at Pittsburgh
O. 18 USC
O. 25 at Boston College
N. 1 Florida State
N. 8 Navy
N. 15 BYU
N. 29 at Stanford
D. 6 at Syracuse

Schedule Analysis: In a word, brutal. Notre Dame faces three BCS participants and six teams that won at least nine games last season. Washington State no longer has Jason Gesser but they still have solid talent across the board. And things only get tougher from there. The Irish will be heavy underdogs in Week 2 at Michigan. After very tough road trips to Purdue and Pittsburgh, ND faces two teams it lost to last year – USC and Boston College. Then Florida State comes calling in South Bend. If the Irish can open the season 5-3 against that competition, it should finish 9-3 with Navy, BYU, Stanford and Syracuse closing out the year.

Final Word: That young offensive line better grow up in a hurry. There are no tune-ups, as the Irish take on BCS conference teams for the first eight games of the season. The key for the Irish will be quarterback Carlyle Holiday. When he struggled last season, Notre Dame's offense was anemic. The special teams and defensive touchdowns may not be there this year if that happens again. Still, reports are Holiday had a good spring and the offense in general will have another year in Willingham's system. Defensively, the Irish look strong, and they will have to be, especially early in the season.

#22 Notre Dame

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