Sunday, October 06, 2002

Irish mystery stretches into another episode



By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Writer

        SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There may be limits to Tyrone Willingham's leadership. Notre Dame just hasn't bumped into them yet.

        The mystery that is the unbeaten Irish season will have at least one more episode. Willingham's fired-up squad saw to that with a four-touchdown outburst that was as unexpected as it was electric. It began late in the third quarter and stretched early into the fourth and put Stanford away 31-7.

        Asked to explain it, Willingham talked about a “surge of energy,” and a few other qualities that unlike passing or rushing yards, aren't easily measured.

        But Stanford coach Buddy Teevens came closer to an explanation. With neither team playing particularly well, the game became a battle of wills.

        “And they don't seem to get spooked or panicked,” he said, “when situations aren't going their way.”

        That's what leadership is about. It's about drawing a line on the field, staying poised and in control, and refusing to let the weight of all those previous failures to become a prelude to the next one. Typically low key, Willingham insisted Notre Dame's sudden turnaround was at least as much a product of desperation as inspiration.

        “Believe me,” he said afterward, “we're not good enough to cover all those mistakes.”

        For most of Saturday afternoon, the Irish were as unwatchable on offense as a team ranked among the Top 10 in the country has a right to be.

        Notre Dame quarterback Pat Dillingham, the walk-on whose late-game heroics against Michigan State inspired talk of the movie, “Rudy,” was playing this weekend like a cast member of “Little Giants.”

        Instead of picking up the slack, his teammates kept dropping the ball. The Irish missed three field goals and were called for 10 penalties, including one that wiped out Vontez Duff's 92-yard punt return for a touchdown. But despite lurching out to a 7-3 lead at halftime, Stanford wasn't playing much better.

        There was good reason for the miscues, for the anxiety that creeped into both teams' week of preparation and infected their execution on the field. For the answer, you needed look no further than Willingham, who recruited nearly all the kids playing for Stanford and last season paced their sideline as their coach.

        “Once the game started, it was all about guys wearing gold helmets. It wasn't about Coach Willingham,” Cardinal quarterback Chris Lewis said.

        But it wasn't easy to keep his emotions locked up the whole time.

        “It was kind of weird during the game looking over there,” he said, “and realizing, "Wow, that's Coach Willingham.”'

        Just as Willingham had trouble putting his finger on the decisive Irish surge — a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns by Shane Walton and Courtney Watson were bookended by two sustained offensive drives — it's hard to say exactly how he's turned Notre Dame around so sharply.

        His predecessor, Bob Davie, left a defense that ranked 14th in the nation last season, and Willingham was brought here mostly for his offensive expertise, to bring the short-passing West Coast offense to the middle of the country.

        An injury to starting quarterback, Carlyle Holiday, stalled what little progress the Irish had been making on offense, but that might be beside the point.

        Even before the two interception returns cracked open what was a needlessly close game, Willingham had been getting more and more important contributions from all sorts of unlikely places. The Irish have needed only 14 touchdowns to get to 5-0 and six of those have come on defense and special teams.

        Asked whether he could remember getting so many big plays outside of the offense, Willingham smiled.

        “At any time in my career?” he repeated a question. “I think we had one stretch like that when I was with the Minnesota Vikings.”

        He was an assistant coach then, but at most every stop in his coaching career the people who surround him suspect Willingham is too good to stay anywhere long.

        “I never expected to have Coach Willingham as my coach my entire time at Stanford,” Cardinal receiver Teyo Johnson. “I thought it would be the NFL he left for, but it worked out to be Notre Dame.”

        Not that the Irish aren't grateful.

        Notre Dame is 5-0 in his first season, a feat matched by Irish coaching legends Jess Harper, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. Of those five, the Irish had no place beating Michigan and Michigan State, and no idea how they were going to turn back Stanford.

        But Willingham never loses faith or his cool. He prepares them to succeed, plays to their strengths and pretends not to be the least bit surprised when one improbable result after another falls into the win column.

        It's why the Stanford kids stopped him before he was about to disappear in the tunnel and one by one, exchanged words and hugs, and left with smiles. Even after losing to the man.

        “He just said, "Keep your head up, keep the guys going,”' Lewis recalled, “because he knows what we are capable of.”

        ———

        Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

       



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