It was a fresh start for football in South Bend, as head coach Ty Willingham came over from Stanford to coach the 2002 Notre Dame football team. Willlingham had taken the Cardinal to a Rose Bowl in 1999, and a strong first year—including briefly sniffing a possible national championship—raised hopes that Notre Dame finally had the right man.
The expectations were low when the season began, after 2001 had been a losing year in Bob Davie’s final campaign. Notre Dame was unranked whey went to East Rutherford to open the season against Maryland.
The Terps had shocked the country the year before by winning the ACC title and going to the Orange Bowl under the leadership of innovative head coach Ralph Friedgen. It was offensive creativity that “the Fridge” was renowned for, which made Notre Dame’s strong defensive outing on August 31 all the more heartening.
Notre Dame completely dominated in the trenches, holding Maryland to 16 rush yards, while generating 130 of their own. The Irish gave the keys to the offense to sophomore Carlyle Holiday, who turned in an effective 17/27 for 226 yards and no interceptions. He found a favorite target in Omar Jenkins, who caught five balls for 87 yards. Jenkins would remain Holiday’s favorite receiver throughout the year and Notre Dame won the opener 22-0.
The win got the Irish into the Top 25 and they got set for their traditional run through the Big Ten trio of Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State. They won close games over mediocre Purdue and a Michigan State program that had collapsed after Nick Saban’s departure for LSU. The signature moment came in between those two games, when the Irish hosted Michigan.
Ryan Grant had a bright NFL future ahead of him, playing for the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre. He was a college sophomore in 2002 and he ran over Michigan for 132 yards on 28 carries. It was the key difference in a sloppy game where each team turned it over four times. Notre Dame led 25-17 in the fourth quarter, when Shane Walton came up with two big plays.
After Michigan scored with 2:53 left, it was Walton who batted away the two-point conversion to keep Notre Dame ahead 25-23. Then he intercepted a pass on the Michigan 38-yard line to preserve the win. Between this win, and the Purdue/Michigan State victories, it was enough to vault ND into the Top 10. The Willingham era was off to a strong start.
Willingham faced off with his old school next. Stanford was on their way to a bad year and the Irish won easily, 31-7. A home date with Pitt a week later was a tougher test. This was a pretty good Panther team, one that would win eight games and they controlled the flow of play, outgaining Notre Dame 402 yards to 185.
But the ND defense sacked mobile Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford eight times. The Irish recovered a fumble on the Pitt 12-yard line that produced an easy score. In spite of having only one good drive the entire game—an 11-play/80-yard TD march in the second quarter—Notre Dame won 14-6.
A road trip to Air Force followed, and the Irish were able to dominate a good triple-option offense, destroying them at their own game, on the ground. Grant rushed for 190 yards in a 21-14 win.
Notre Dame was now ranked sixth in the country, and October 26 would be the big test—they were heading to Tallahassee to play Florida State. It was time to find out if national title hopes were legitimate.
The answer was yes. The Irish executed their game plan perfectly. They controlled the point of attack, with Grant rushing for 94 yards, while the Seminoles were unable to run. Holiday was efficient, 13/21 for 185 yards and no interceptions. And he made big plays, notably hitting converted quarterback and now wide receiver Arnaz Battle off a play-action rollout for a 65-yard touchdown pass.
Meanwhile, FSU couldn’t take care of the ball, with four turnovers. Notre Dame won 34-24. “They kept us bumfuzzled the whole game,” Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said, putting it as only he can. Notre Dame moved up to #4 in the polls and now the talk was about a national championship and whether the Irish could get a shot at Miami, #1 in the polls and the defending national champion.
One week later, Notre Dame’s fellow Catholics from Boston College ended the talk as soon as it had begun. It was a game that was the reverse of the Pitt game. In this one, ND controlled the flow of play, with a 357-184 advantage in yardage. But Notre Dame lost three fumbles and turned it over five times in all.
The Irish had broken out the green jerseys in an attempt to wake up the echoes of 1977, but instead they woke up the echoes of 1993, as Boston College ended their national title hopes with a victory in South Bend.
There was still the goal of getting a major bowl bid and Notre Dame beat Navy and Rutgers to put themselves in position for a marquee postseason spot. They needed to go to USC and win to make it happen.
But it was in the latter part of 2002 that USC was developing into the program that would dominate college football from 2003-08 under the leadership of Pete Carroll. In ’02, they had a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in Carson Palmer. One stat will tell the story—USC gained 609 yards of offense, while Notre Dame had 109.
There aren’t enough turnovers in the world to overcome domination like that. The Trojans won 44-13 in what boiled down to a coming-out party for their program’s rejuvenation. Notre Dame accepted a Gator Bowl invitation to play N.C. State.
Unfortunately, this year that had begun with such promise, ended on yet another bad note. This Wolfpack team had Philip Rivers at quarterback and Jerricho Cotchery at receiver, and they rolled to a 28-6 win.
Notre Dame ended the season ranked #17 in the country. It was a finish that doesn’t tell how real and tangible a national title run seemed as late as November. Unfortunately, it does tell the story of the future of the Willingham regime. ND never regained the promise of September/October 2002 and after two more seasons, Willingham would be shown the door, with the program still searching for its post-Lou Holtz leader.