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Irish return to classic style

Chris Federico | Monday, October 13, 2003

Somewhere in South Carolina, Lou Holtz was smiling.

His immediate successor, former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie, certainly was after doing the color commentary for ESPN during Notre Dame’s dominant 20-14 victory over No. 16 Pittsburgh Saturday night.

What they saw would have brought a smile to the face of any fan of classic Notre Dame football.

Although the score didn’t indicate it, the Irish dominated the Panthers on both sides of the ball, returning to a traditional style of Irish play not seen in a while.

“I haven’t seen that in a long time,” said Notre Dame safety Glenn Earl, whose defense also did its part in stymieing a potent Pittsburgh passing attack and limiting the Panthers to 176 yards of total offense. “The offense just ran the ball at will without even throwing a pass for eight minutes straight. It was just domination.”

The Irish racked up 352 yards rushing on the strength of senior Julius Jones’ 262-yard, record-breaking day.

The piece-meal Notre Dame offensive line consisting of five first-year starters in Jim Molinaro, Mark LeVoir, Bob Morton, Dan Stevenson and freshman Ryan Harris looked reminiscent of the over-powering Irish fronts of the Holtz days.

On defense, the Irish played as dominantly as some of the great units to come before them, holding a Pittsburgh offense that averaged 38 points a game scoreless in the second half.

“After every possession, we just came back to the sidelines and said to each other that they cannot hang with us,” said defensive end Justin Tuck, who led a tenacious Irish defensive front Saturday with 10 tackles and three and a half sacks. “That was the first time this year I think we played together as a great defensive line.”

Defensive tackle Darrell Campbell played like a man possessed. The senior did not miss a snap on defense against the Panthers – leading an Irish pass rush that kept quarterback Rod Rutherford and the Pittsburgh offense moving backwards all night.

“I’m really proud of all those guys. Darrell Campbell never came out of the game,” Irish defensive line coach Greg Mattison said. “The kids wanted this one bad, and we’ve been so close. You can’t say enough about our players and [head coach] Ty [Willingham] in keeping this team together and believing.”

Cornerback Vontez Duff accepted one of the biggest challenges presented to any Irish player this season in nearly single-handedly shutting down Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the second half of the game, preventing the nation’s leading receiver from catching a pass after halftime.

Simply put, this was Notre Dame football like it is supposed to be played. The Irish marched into a ranked opponent’s stadium and came away with an impressive victory.

Somewhere, Knute Rockne is cheering, as his boys in blue listened to his famous halftime speech one more time: “Sometime, when the team is up against it, and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they got…”

Notre Dame did just that Saturday night. Off to a 1-3 start, and with things only looking worse with teams like USC and Florida State on the horizon, the Irish needed a dominant performance like they got.

They needed it for all the doubters, to prove that Notre Dame hasn’t fallen off the football radar. They needed it for themselves, to show that they still have the talent and ability to win every Saturday. And, most importantly, they needed it for the program, to show that Notre Dame football is still alive and kicking.

“We said it’s important for this football team to make those that wore the uniform before them proud, and that doesn’t change,” Willingham said.

There should be a lot of proud Notre Dame alums after Saturday’s victory. Because for just over three hours, the Irish, indeed, returned to the glory days of Notre Dame football.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Chris Federico at cfederic@nd.edu.