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Stretched to the limit

Heather VanHoegarden | Monday, September 8, 2003

On their way into the locker room after Saturday’s overtime victory, Rhema McKnight and Derrick Curry yelled, “We never give up … The Irish never quit trying.”

That attitude allowed the Irish to come back Saturday from a 19-0 deficit at Notre Dame Stadium and defeat Washington State in overtime, 29-26.

It was the largest comeback for the Irish since Oct. 16, 1999, when Notre Dame came back from a 24-3 deficit to defeat USC 25-24.

“Early in the game we needed something to go our way, but we could not get everything working together at the same time,” Willingham said. “In the second half we eliminated our mistakes [and] that helped us turn the game around. “

Running backs Ryan Grant and Julius Jones combined for 128 rushing yards in the final quarter and Nicholas Setta nailed five field goals to lead the Notre Dame comeback.

After struggling offensively throughout much of the first three quarters, Notre Dame got the big break it needed thanks to the defense – namely Vontez Duff.

With a little under 12 minutes to go in the fourth, Duff read the pass from Washington State quarterback Matt Kegel. As Cougar tight end Troy Bienemann caught the pass, Duff crushed him and jarred the ball loose. Glenn Earl immediately fell on the ball at the Washington State 25.

“It was just one of those plays where you gotta make the hit,” Duff said. “You wait for it, and make sure you make the hit.”

Duff’s fumble-causing hit proved to be the turning point of the game, as the Irish went on a tear, scoring 20 fourth quarter points.

“I know that during the game, only a few plays determine the ballgame, and that was probably one of those few plays,” Duff said.

Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham also acknowledged the importance of Duff’s play.

“Anytime you can get a big play … now you have a chance to get your team in gear,” Willingham said. “Without those plays you still struggle, and that play allowed us to gain an edge.”

The tide had certainly turned; quarterback Carlyle Holiday then led the Irish on two straight touchdown drives.

“In the second half, we all came out and knew what our plan was, and we took over the game,” Holiday said. “We just tried to take it to them right then and there.”

Holiday finished with 21 completions, a career high, in 34 attempts, good for 149 yards, one touchdown and one interception. McKnight caught his first career touchdown pass, the Irish’s first of the 2003 season.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the Irish took care of business in the second half. After only rushing for 19 yards in the first half, the Irish finished with 163 yards rushing for the game.

The running game, comprised of a Jones and Grant duo, proved to be the difference. Jones played in his first game for Notre Dame since the 2001 season.

“It’s what we hoped and anticipated [Jones] would add to our football team,” Willingham said.

Jones finished with 72 yards on 11 carries, including a 19-yard touchdown run that put the Irish ahead 23-19 in the fourth quarter. Grant, meanwhile, carried 17 times for 98 yards.

The Irish offense, however, would not have been able to come back without the defensive effort.

“The defense did a great job of doing just enough to hold them,” Willingham said.

Led by Brandon Hoyte’s eight tackles, the Irish defense held the Cougars scoreless in the third quarter. They then stopped Washington State in overtime and forced Cougar kicker Drew Dunning to miss a 34-yard field goal.

“Our defense is on that path to being great,” Duff said.

When the Irish got the ball in overtime, they played for the field goal. They had practiced for an almost identicalsituation last week.

“I felt good about the scenario,” Willingham said.

Setta’s attempt started out right but hooked just inside the right upright to give Notre Dame the victory.

“We are very fortunate to win against a good football team,” Willingham said. “We have to be a better team than that.”