Aug 31, 2002
By RICHARD ROSENBLATT
AP Football Writer
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Tyrone Willingham clapped his hands in encouragement when the game started, and everyone else at Notre Dame cheered when the Fighting Irish walked off the field with a victory over No. 21 Maryland on Saturday night.
Willingham's debut as Notre Dame's coach was a dandy - an efficient if not exciting 22-0 victory in the Kickoff Classic before a crowd of 72,903 at Giants Stadium.
With one promising game, Willingham already has accomplished what former coach Bob Davie couldn't do in his five years - win by a shutout. The Irish last posted a shutout in 1996, a 62-0 win over Rutgers.
The Irish unveiled their West Coast offense directed by Carlyle Holiday, and it worked well enough to easily handle the Terrapins, who barely resembled their ACC championship team of a year ago.
Nick Setta delivered a school record-tying five field goals, and Vontez Duff returned a punt 76 yards for a third-quarter touchdown. Willingham simply paced the sideline, rarely showing emotion, and applauded his players as they came off the field.
For a change, Notre Dame dominated in every way. The Irish held onto the ball for more than 41 minutes and outgained Maryland in total yardage, 356-133. Holiday completed 17 of 27 passes for 226 yards and ran for another 13.
The Irish took a 9-0 lead on field goals by Setta of 51, 32 and 18 yards. Setta was selected the MVP of the Classic, which is in its final year.
The defense had a star of its own in cornerback Shane Walton. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior tied a school record with three interceptions and stopped Maryland's Mario Merrills for a 3-yard loss on fourth-and-4 from the Irish 26 in the third quarter. Walton's third interception came with 5:51 left in the game, at the Notre Dame 39.
Holiday's quick drops paid off in short completions that were turned into first downs time and again by Arnaz Battle and Omar Jenkins. Battle caught four passes for 68 yards and Jenkins had five catches for 87 yards.
The Irish broke open the game when Duff, a 5-11, 194-pound junior, took a punt at the Irish 24, slipped two would-be tacklers and weaved his way in for a touchdown 4:32 into the second half. Setta added a a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter and a 24-yarder early in the fourth quarter.
Setta missed a 56-yard attempt on Notre Dame's opening drive.
With top running back Bruce Perry out with an injury, the Terps couldn't run on the Irish, and new quarterback Scott McBrien couldn't get the offense going. The left-hander was replaced in the third quarter Chris Kelley. McBrien, who returned in the fourth quarter, was 9-of-23 for 84 yards with two interceptions.
Willingham hoped his debut would provide no surprises. All he wanted, he said, was a win. He got the win all right, but Irish fans have to be surprisingly satisfied with what looks like a transformation from a 6-5 season in 2001 followed by a turbulent offseason.
Willingham left Stanford after seven seasons to replace Davie on Jan. 1. Before that, the Irish had hired George O'Leary, but he resigned five days into the job when it was discovered he had lied on his resume. Also, six Irish players left the team, including three who were expelled after a student said she was raped.
For now, the Irish can forget the past and talk about a victory in their season-opener.