It was a sign of things to come, just not for the coach who led the upset. In that respect, the Irish upset of No. 8 Michigan was Tyrone Willingham’s last gasp as Notre Dame’s head coach, a reality not quite recognized in only 2004’s second week. If it was, it was because the Irish were 10.5-point underdogs.
Rivalry aside, Notre Dame was not supposed to have a chance.
Enter freshman running back Darius Walker, who had not taken a snap in the Irish season opener, a 20-17 loss at BYU.
“I didn’t even know who that was running the ball,” Wolverines cornerback Marlin Jackson said. “He’s a good player and he had a good game.”
Jackson’s assessment was correct; no one knew who Walker was. His first snap featured a play-action bootleg for sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn. The defense stuck with Quinn, not worried about whomever that was in the No. 3 jersey.
By the end of Notre Dame’s 28-20 toppling of Michigan, though, the sharp “Walker” announcement from the Notre Dame Stadium PA seemed to come on nearly every play. His debut finished with 31 carries for 115 yards and two touchdowns, both scores and 61 yards coming on 14 rushes in the fourth quarter, when the Irish turned a 12-7 deficit into a 28-12 lead.
While Walker became the afternoon’s hero, Notre Dame’s defense held serve long enough to give him a chance to adjust to a few collegiate hits. Three first-half Wolverines drives reached the Irish red zone, and all three ended with field goals, part of a Michigan problem all game as it converted only six of 18 third downs. That trend would continue with a fourth field goal in the third quarter.
Then the Wolverines began making mistakes bigger than incomplete passes or stuffed runs. The first two scores of the 21-0 Irish tilt came on short fields, a Notre Dame interception inside the Wolverines’ 30-yard line and a blocked punt recovered at the 5, but even as that lead blossomed, Michigan still did not gain enough steam to muster a response until less than three minutes remained and Irish receiver Maurice Stovall snuffed that out by recovering the subsequent onside kick.
By all indications, it was a fourth-quarter performance forecasting good things to come. Notre Dame had lost 10 of its last 15 games, but reclaiming the No. 1 all-time winning percentage was cause for the students to storm the field.
The Irish had overcome Quinn’s mistake-filled day, completing only 10-of-20 passes for 178 yards with three interceptions overshadowing two touchdowns. His poor performance had not cost the Irish a win, certainly his coming better days would lead to more victories.
Perhaps Willingham knew better.
“Anytime you knock off a top-10 team, it is a big win,” he said. “Our guys did something significant, but it was still one win. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. Tomorrow we have to start all over.”
Quinn’s season did improve, a logical build on his mediocre freshman year, finishing with 2,586 yards and 17 touchdowns on 191-of-353 passing. Walker set the tone for a three-year career in which he would provide the second-dimension to Quinn’s superstardom, rushing for 786 yards and seven touchdowns with an average of 4.25 yards per carry as a freshman.
But the Irish continued to struggle under Willingham. A 6-5 regular season capped by losing three of four, including the final two home games in the final seconds, did in the third-year head coach.
The prodigious careers of Quinn (a two-time Heisman finalist) and Walker (2,463 yards in the next two seasons) would be enjoyed by someone else, Walker’s dramatic entrance giving Willingham only a temporary reprieve, if that.
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