Irish rely on dominant running game to defeat West Virginia 34-24
By CHRIS FEDERICO
If Justin Smith's fourth-quarter interception seemed familiar, it should have. Four years ago in the same stadium, then-Notre Dame senior Ty Goode, playing because starter Allen Rossum suffered a concussion on the third play of the game, intercepted a Marc Bulger pass in the endzone to seal the 21-14 victory over West Virginia.
In the fourth quarter Saturday with the Mountaineers driving for the go-ahead score, the fifth-year senior Smith, playing in nickel and dime defenses because of injuries to safeties Jerome Sapp and Ron Israel, picked off West Virginia's Brad Lewis and returned the ball to the Notre Dame 45 yard line, sealing Notre Dame's 34-24 win.
"I thought [the ball] looked like the sun. It was like a shiny day — I forgot all about the rain," Smith said. "You work so hard for five years. I'm just glad I had the opportunity to make it."
On the next play, Tony Fisher broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and raced 55 yards for the touchdown to put the game all but out of reach.
"That was huge," Irish linebacker Tyreo Harrison said. "It put the nail in the coffin. We knew it was time to put that game away."
On the sloppy field in rainy conditions, passing proved nearly impossible for the two teams. Lewis finished 9-for-23 for 91 yards and the interception. Irish quarterback Carlyle Holiday was 7-for-14 for only 70 yards,
"[The conditions] were helpful because we're a good running team," Holiday said. "We pass the ball, but not that much, so we were able to do what we do best — run the ball. It not only helped us but the defense. Their quarterback had a little trouble throwing the ball in the second half."
With the passing games neutralized by the rain, the difference between the two teams was the way the quarterbacks used their legs, not their arms. Holiday led the Irish in rushing with 130 yards on 19 carries.
In the end the Irish ground game proved too much for the Mountaineers. Notre Dame rushed for 345 yards as Fisher contributed 119 yards on 22 carries with a pair of touchdowns and Julius Jones gained 92 yards on 22 attempts with two touchdowns of his own.
"We know we have to go out there and establish a strong running game," Fisher said. "That's Notre Dame football — running the ball. We've been able to run the ball the last couple of weeks and we're going to try to continue from here on out."
The Irish got on the board early in the game. After Holiday took an option keeper 27 yards, Jones ran off the left side for a 19-yard touchdown. The score came 1:15 into the game and was the quickest touchdown for the Irish since Allen Rossum returned an interception for a touchdown 18 seconds into a game against Hawaii in 1997.
"It wasn't particularly fancy but we came out of the chute well," offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers said. "We had the big touchdown run by Julius which I thought really helped our confidence."
West Virginia matched the score on its next possession after just four plays when running back Avon Cobourne broke through the line, slipped a tackle attempt from Israel and raced 60 yards for the score.
With the score tied in the second quarter, Notre Dame put together a 15-play drive capped off with a 1-yard touchdown run by Jones to pull ahead 17-10. The Irish didn't throw a pass during the drive, but converted a pair of fourth down plays.
West Virginia tied the game at 17 on its first possession of the second half with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Lewis to A.J. Nastasi.
After a Notre Dame punt on its next possession, West Virginia took the lead on another touchdown pass from Lewis, this time to wide receiver Tory Johnson.
"In the second half, we came out and laid an egg," Rogers stated. "We had six dead plays in a row."
Just as it appeared the Mountaineers had taken the momentum, Holiday broke free for 36 yards on another option keeper. At first, it appeared Holiday had gone all the way in for the score, but officials ruled him out of bounds at the 25. On the ensuing play, Fisher finished off the drive with the touchdown run to tie the score.
The Irish took the lead on Nicholas Setta's 42-yard field, his second on the day, and then put the game out of reach at 34-24 with Fisher's 55-yard touchdown run with 7:30 left to play.
All Sports Stories for Monday, October 15, 2001