FOOTBALL: Backup QB emerges as improbable hero
By ANDREW SOUKUP
EAST LANSING, Mich.
The first game Pat Dillingham played as Irish quarterback, the public address announcer at Giants Stadium introduced him as Jason Beckstrom, an injured defensive back who wore the same No. 9 jersey as Notre Dame's backup quarterback. Although he was happy to get on the field, Dillingham handed the ball off 10 consecutive times in garbage time against Maryland and became the butt of teammates' jokes for the P.A. man's gaffe.
The second game Dillingham played as Irish quarterback, he threw a 60-yard game-winning touchdown with 1:15 left in the game. This time, teammates laughed with him instead of at him.
"You have to be surprised by his play," Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham said. "You worry about backups coming into a game like that into a pressurized situation. … I think he was amazingly poised and in control of his game."
When a horde of Spartan players buried Carlyle Holiday on the Michigan State sideline late in the third quarter, knocking him out the game with a shoulder injury, Dillingham pulled on his helmet, grabbed a football and started throwing passes to teammates even as roars reverberated throughout Spartan Stadium.
Holiday's injury gave Dillingham the chance he had been waiting over a year for. He came to Notre Dame only because former offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers invited the California quarterback to take an official visit — the only school to do so. Dillingham figured he was going to stay on the scout team the rest of his college career.
But after Jared Clark switched to tight end and Matt LoVecchio transferred to Indiana, Dillingham became Notre Dame's backup by default and had a scholarship to show for it.
Saturday, the "one hit away" mantra Dillingham kept repeating to himself became reality. As trainers started slapping ice packs on Holiday's shoulder, the former walk-on jogged onto the field and into the spotlight.
At first, Dillingham certainly looked like a former walk-on. Shaken by the speed of college pass rushes, his first pass attempt sailed far over 6-foot-5 Maurice Stovall's head. His third pass looked less like a throw and more like a punt as the Spartans intercepted the ball at their own 3-yard line.
"I can't repeat [what I said after that throw]," Willingham said.
Yet his teammates continued to encourage him. Willingham made sure the Irish called plays Dillingham felt comfortable running. Holiday pulled Dillingham aside after each drive and answered questions. Notre Dame's veteran offensive linemen helped keep the sophomore's confidence high.
So when Charles Rogers hauled in a touchdown pass with less than two minutes left to give the Spartans a 17-14 lead, Dillingham remained poised as he stepped under center, 72-yards away from the end zone. If Notre Dame was to beat Michigan State, its hopes lay in the hands of a former walk-on who didn't receive a single Division-I scholarship offer out of high school.
"You try to do some things in practice that put him under pressure situations," offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said. "But until you get into that situation, and especially the way the emotions and the momentum of the game were going, it was a very difficult situation."
How many times Dillingham ran the two-minute drill in practice is debatable. Willingham said "almost next to nothing". Diedrick said a quarter of the time. Dillingham said he split reps with Holiday evenly.
But what isn't debatable is Dillingham's composure when the Irish needed it most. He calmly started the drive with a pass to Gary Godsey and threw a dart at Stovall that drew a pass interference call. Two plays later, in a manner worthy of Joe Montana and Kris Haines, Dillingham noticed Battle adjust his route across the middle of the field, rifled a 10-yard bullet in his direction and watched Battle race 50 more yards for the score.
Just like that, the unknown backup had become the improbable hero.
"If you asked me last year, if I was going to be standing at this podium, I'd probably have to say no," Dillingham said.
Nor could Dillingham have imagined fans would scream his name as he tried to answer questions after the game or television cameras would surround him as he celebrated. In fact, he didn't even know if people on campus knew his name before he threw the pass that preserved Notre Dame's perfect record.
At least he knows he isn't going to be mistaken for a defensive back anytime soon.
"I know his girlfriend is going to like him a whole lot more right now," Holiday joked after the game, his arm in a sling, his return uncertain. "He's the man right now."
All Sports Stories for Monday, September 23, 2002