Monday, October 14, 2002

Luck continues for opportunistic Irish

By Tom Coyne
The Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Pittsburgh center Chad Reed attributed Notre Dame's latest victory to "the luck of the Irish." How else could he describe it?

Notre Dame's offense and defense each had their worst games of the season and still managed to beat the Panthers 14-6 Saturday.

What else but luck explains how the Irish (6-0), with the nation's fifth-worst offense, have risen to No. 7 - their highest ranking since opening the 1996 season at No. 6. The only other ranked team with one of the worst 25 offenses is Georgia, which is ranked No. 5 despite having the nation's 24th-worst offense.

What else but luck explains Notre Dame still being unbeaten despite failing to score touchdowns on offense in two games and struggling to score touchdowns on offense in all of them?

Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said the Irish simply are finding ways to win.

"We expect that of our players," he said. "With our style of play, we expect them to find a way to step up and make a play."

But will that formula work with games at No. 18 Air Force and No. 12 Florida State up next?

Willingham wouldn't concede that his team had been outplayed by Pittsburgh even though the Panthers had huge advantages in total offense (402-185 yards), first downs (21-10) and passing yards (313-145).

"Our guys just stay the course," Willingham said. "I don't know if it's unwavering confidence or other things that affect this group, but they just stay the course."

The course so far has comprised of depending on the defense to make big plays and creating just enough offense to win - whether it comes from the offense, defense or special teams.

On defense Saturday, the Irish did not give up a touchdown, had eight sacks and forced three turnovers, but the biggest play may have been one early in the first quarter.

Cornerback Shane Walton chased down Pitt tight end Kris Wilson from behind and tackled him at the 9-yard line after a 52-yard pass play. Instead of jumping to a 7-0 lead, the Panthers settled for a 29-yard field goal.

The Irish had one sustained drive of 80 yards for a touchdown. The other was a 12-yard drive after Glenn Earl hit quarterback Rod Rutherford hard and forced a fumble, the eighth time this season the Irish defense has either scored a touchdown or set one up.

"They have to be conscious of the fact that a mistake down there leads to an easy score," Willingham said. "So they change their calls, and maybe get a little more conservative. It allows us to pack things in and hopefully get to three and out, then all of a sudden you're starting to get control of the football game."

Offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said the Irish need to do a better job of running the ball. The Irish, who had two 100-yard rushers against Stanford a week earlier, were held to 40 yards rushing on 32 carries.

"They did a good job of loading the box up with the scheme, and they were flying to the ball. We weren't moving very many people backwards," Diedrick said.

As for luck of the Irish, Willingham isn't counting on it.

"They've worked hard, and they deserve the right to be where they are today," Willingham said.

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