Keys to success don't change from year to year
By JEFF BALTRUZAK
Assistant Sports Editor
The date was October 6, 2001, but it might have well been October 6, 2000.
With a win against Pittsburgh, the Notre Dame football team finally returned to its 2000 formula: win the turnover battle, let the defense make big plays and run the ball until opposing linebackers are seeing Julius Jones and Tony Fisher in their nightmares.
"This is the first time we've followed the plan," said head coach Bob Davie. "It was a lot like last year's team."
One of the most quoted statistics concerning Irish football this season was the team's poor minus-seven turnover margin. Notre Dame only turned the ball over an NCAA record-tying eight times last year.
"For us, it's all about forcing turnovers," Davie said after the game. "The offense has been taking most of the heat, you know the defense deserved some heat because they weren't generating any turnovers."
Before Saturday, the Irish defense had created just a pair of turnovers. Strong safety Abram Elam had two turnovers alone against Pittsburgh.
"We got back to the style of defense we played last year, we got back to that this year and forced some turnovers," said senior defensive end Anthony Weaver.
While the defense hasn't been the turnover machine they were last year, the offense hadn't done its part controlling the ball either. The Irish offense had been averaging three turnovers a game, a figure even great defenses have a hard time matching to keep the turnover margin equal.
Notre Dame's turnovers played into the emotion and momentum of the game, just as they did last year. When Elam recovered Panther receiver R.J. English's fumble at the goal line, Pittsburgh was about to take the third quarter momentum as well as a four-point lead against an Irish team that is, put lightly, offensively challenged.
"I was just trying to show emotion to get everybody fired up to go out and win this game," said Elam.
Elam accomplished his mission. The Irish then drove 99 yards in what Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris recognized was the turning point of the game.
"We came right back very strong on the drive after Notre Dame took the lead on their field goal," said Harris. "We still found ourselves coming up short ... the momentum went to them."
Big Plays on Defense
Weaver took making plays on defense to a new level against the Panthers. In addition to harassing Pittsburgh's quarterbacks on almost every play, Weaver made the one of the most athletic plays the Irish have made this season, leaping up to pick off David Priestley's fourth-quarter pass.
Priestley was as surprised as anyone that it was even possible for Weaver to make the play.
"You don't account for those guys," said Priestley. "He just made a hell of a play. I couldn't believe it when it happened."
With the Panthers driving in the second quarter, senior cornerback Shane Walton had another standout big play. Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Bryant caught the pass over the middle, but Walton was able to knock the ball loose to be recovered by Courtney Watson on the type of play that was common in 2000, when the Irish forced 19 fumbles, but not one year later.
Running the Ball
Last year, Notre Dame was a running team. The Irish relied on the running game to set up an efficient, controlled, first-down orientated passing attack run by a first year starter.
Against Pittsburgh, it was much of the same. Notre Dame had a dominating 249 yards on the ground and just 70 in the air. Carlyle Holiday missed just three passes the whole game and converted on key plays, like his eight-yard strike to David Givens on fourth-and-six.
But for most of the game, the Irish did not have to rely on Holiday's arm, just his feet. For the most part, the Irish ran the option effectively, with consistent four and five yard gains.
The Irish did not rely so much on 40 yard explosions down the sideline as Fisher and Jones being unremarkably effective gaining four and five yards.
"It was all about going out there and establishing the run and the pass," said Fisher. "Today, we just went out there and executed a heck of a lot better than we had in the previous games."
And they looked like the 2000 Irish that went 9-2.
All Sports Stories for Monday, October 8, 2001