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Walker, Irish Savior

Justin Schuver | Monday, September 13, 2004

At the start of the season, most of the Notre Dame faithful figured the Irish would be 1-1 after the Michigan game. And they are, it just happened differently than many thought.In front of a raucous sellout home crowd, the Irish put on a display of balanced offense and stellar defense – while taking advantage of their opponent’s mistakes – as they bounced back from a disappointing opener against Brigham Young to shock No. 8 Michigan 28-20.”We just believed we could get it done,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said when asked what changed between the BYU loss and the victory over the Wolverines. “Our guys really stayed the course, and I think our coaches did a wonderful job of directing them.”Certainly another difference between the two games would have to be the play of true freshman running back Darius Walker. Walker, who did not see action against BYU, came into the game near the end of the first quarter and never looked back – eventually scoring two touchdowns and collecting 115 yards on 31 carries.”Basically, I was just worried about doing my job to the best of my ability and the best that I could,” he said. “I just tried to block everything else out. It was quite an experience out there.”Notre Dame scored its other two touchdowns through the air on passes to wide receiver Matt Shelton and fullback Rashon Powers-Neal.Irish quarterback Brady Quinn finished the game 10-of-20 for 178 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions – although two of the interceptions deflected off Notre Dame receivers.Quinn was proud the team was able to win even without its quarterback playing his best game.”That’s just a big part of this team,” he said. “It’s nice to know that it’s not on any one person’s shoulders [to win the game for the team].”For a long time, Notre Dame looked as if it would have trouble putting any consistent offensive effort on the field. The Irish did not convert on third down until the second quarter, and twice in the second half Notre Dame turned the ball over inside the Michigan 20-yard line.Michigan kicker Garrett Rivas kicked three field goals in the first half to give the Wolverines a 9-0 lead at halftime, after a first half in which Notre Dame advanced the ball to the Michigan 1-yard line but could not convert on fourth-and-one. The Irish defense made several key plays in the half to force the Wolverines to settle for field goals, rather than touchdowns.”I thought the Notre Dame defense was outstanding,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “They played really, really, really good football today.”Early in the third quarter, Shelton got a step on the Michigan defensive back, and Quinn found his receiver open in the end zone.Rivas kicked another field goal to increase Michigan’s lead to 12-7, and the Wolverines threatened again before quarterback Chad Henne’s pass intended for Braylon Edwards deflected off the receiver’s hands and into Dwight Ellick’s hands for an interception on the Michigan 30-yard line.Six plays later, Walker ran six yards for a touchdown to give the Irish its first lead of the game. Notre Dame continued with its momentum, as Jerome Collins and Chase Anastasio blocked a Michigan punt and Corey Mays recovered the ball at the Michigan 4-yard line.Walker took it in for the score on the next play.Notre Dame added one more touchdown in the fourth quarter, with Powers-Neal scoring on a 9-yard reception. Michigan added a touchdown late as Henne connected with Steve Breaston for a 25-yard pass with 1:13 left.The Wolverines were successful on the two-point conversion and tried an onside kick, but Notre Dame’s Maurice Stovall recovered.The Irish were able to run out the rest of the clock and set off a rowdy celebration that included the Notre Dame student section storming the field.While he acknowledged it was nice to get a win, Willingham cautioned he would not allow his team to get overly confident heading into a road game next weekend against his alma mater, Michigan State.”There is still a lot of improvement that we have to have if we’re going to be the best football team that we can be,” he said.