I've always been a huge Notre Dame fan. But I'll be the first to admit that I've been surprised -- along with many other observers -- at what the Fighting Irish have accomplished this season.
Back in August, I commented that a 7-5 record would have been a heck of a job for first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham and his fine staff. Well, the Irish have far exceeded what I envisioned and have become a viable force. Yet the debate continues as to whether they're overrated.
I've maintained all along that the unbeaten Irish are, in fact, overrated. While I still feel that way to a certain extent, the victory on Saturday at Tallahassee against Florida State even made a believer out of me.
|Irish QB Carlyle Holiday was 13 of 21 for 185 yards and two TDs vs. the Seminoles.|
The bottom line is this: Notre Dame embodies the team concept. Not blessed with superior personnel, the Irish have basically been carried by a few high-level offensive performers, a hustling and opportunistic defense and superb special-teams play.
QB Carlyle Holiday has the knack for making things happen at crucial points. Sophomore tailback Ryan Grant has made his mark as a budding star. And senior wideout Arnaz Battle is fast becoming a potential third-round draft choice.
The offensive line also deserves a great deal of credit, keyed by senior LT Jordan Black and fiery junior anchor Jeff Faine.
And without top-flight overall personnel, Willingham, offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick and defensive coordinator Kent Baer deserve a tremendous amount of credit for jobs extraordinarily well done. There's no question that Willingham is national coach of the year. The Irish at 8-0 have shocked the college football world, and several victories happened against teams with superior talent.
In some ways, Notre Dame's season thus far resembles the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl campaign of 2000, the New England Patriots' Super Bowl season of 2001 and the Maryland Terrapins' Cinderella story last season under coach Ralph Friedgen.
The mistake when evaluating the Irish is judging them as individual parts. As I've stated all along, this is not a roster dotted with players who excite as single entities. But the sum total speaks for itself, which is why the Irish find themselves in the mix for the national championship.
Barring a shocking upset in the coming weeks, everything for the Irish will boil down to their Nov. 30 game against USC at the Coliseum. And by the way, add the Trojans to the list of teams on Notre Dame's schedule who have a more impressive personnel base.
ASU's SUGGS EYES SACK RECORD
Arizona State has fast become the surprise of the Pac-10, moving to 7-2 with a 27-16 victory over Washington on Saturday night. This sets up quite a showdown this week when the Sun Devils travel to Pullman to take on 7-1 Washington State. One of them will come out of the game as the last unbeaten team in conference play.
While the Sun Devils' attack force has stolen the spotlight, led by sophomore QB Andrew Walter (18-of-27 passing for 184 yards and two TDs vs. the Huskies), it's the defense that rose up against Washington and keyed the victory. If the Sun Devils are to finish strong against the likes of Washington State's Jason Gesser, Cal's Kyle Boller and USC's Carson Palmer, the defense must continue to improve.
The ASU player to watch on defense is supremely talented junior DE Terrell Suggs. Against Washington, the athletically gifted 6-3½, 255-pounder recorded 4½ sacks (bringing his season total to 17½). Suggs is poised to set new national and school sack records ... but the national record would fall first. How, you ask?
Here's how: Former Syracuse DE Dwight Freeney holds the current single-season national record with 17½ sacks (which he established last season). North Carolina DE Julius Peppers held the previous record (15), but the NCAA only started counting sacks in 2000. Individual schools, though, have kept track for their own school record books.
So that explains why Suggs needs just one-half of a sack to break Freeney's national record, but two sacks to break the school record. The Arizona State record book shows that DE Al Harris holds the school record for sacks in a single season (19).
'HUSKERS KEEP BOWL HOPES ALIVE
After trailing 31-14 in the third quarter on the road at Texas A&M, Nebraska rallied for a season-saving 38-31 victory that keeps alive its chance to maintain a 34-year streak of appearing in bowl games.
The 'Huskers moved to 6-3 but face a challenging slate of games to close things out. Except for what should be an easy victory Nov. 9 over Kansas on homecoming at Lincoln, coach Frank Solich's squad faces Texas, Kansas State in Manhattan and Colorado.
One of the major bright spots for Nebraska lately has been the stellar play of highly regarded freshman RB David Horne. The 6-foot, 200-pounder is coming off a 128-yard rushing effort against A&M that included four TD scampers (of 2, 6, 11 and 21 yards).
Horne starred at Omaha Central High, the same school that produced several other Husker RBs, including Green Bay Packers RB Ahman Green. At Omaha Central, Horne made his mark at both RB and free safety, drawing interest from Notre Dame, Michigan and Colorado, to name just a few schools. Recruiting guru Tom Lemming ranked Horne as the 23rd-best recruit in the country last year.
USC's PALMER ENTERS HEISMAN RACE
USC senior QB Carson Palmer (6-5, 235) has made monumental strides this season. In his previous seasons with the Trojans, questionable decision-making and periods of inconsistency resulted in his tossing the same number of TD passes (39) as interceptions.
Through the first eight games of 2002 -- six against top-25 teams -- Palmer has thrown for 2,429 yards, completing 62.1 percent of his aerials. He has thrown 18 TD passes and eight interceptions, which is a dramatic improvement over his TD/interception ratio heading into 2002.
In the past two weeks against Washington and Oregon, Palmer has thrown for 796 yards, with nine TD passes and just two interceptions. His 448 passing yards against Oregon on Saturday established a USC single-game record.
A major plus for Palmer is the superior skill-position talent he benefits from at wide receiver. I've highlighted this group (Mike Williams, Kareem Kelly, Keary Colbert) in recent weeks, with freshman sensation Williams continuing to post mind-boggling numbers. Against the overmatched Oregon secondary, Williams grabbed 13 passes for 226 yards and two TDs.
Another key on Saturday against Oregon was the breakout performance of senior RB Justin Fargas. Now at full strength, Fargas figures to be the Trojans' main running threat the rest of the way, coming off his impressive 139-yard effort against the Ducks.
Palmer is now in the Heisman mix, and the Trojans are in the hunt for the Pac-10 championship. Plus, coach Pete Carroll's squad will play a prominent role nationally when they host currently unbeaten and highly ranked Notre Dame on Nov. 30.
PENN STATE SUFFERS ANOTHER TOUGH LOSS
Ohio State remained unbeaten with a 13-7 victory over Penn State, which has now lost three games that could have been in the win column with a break or two.
The telling sign for the Nittany Lions' offense was the fact that blue-chip senior wideout Bryant Johnson was limited to just one catch for six yards.
In a game of that magnitude, a star player like Johnson has to be a significant factor. Creative attempts must be made to get the ball in his hands as much as possible. Against the Buckeyes on Saturday, that didn't happen.
With winnable games over the final four weeks to close out the regular season, Penn State still has a great opportunity to finish with a record of 9-3, with all three losses by a total of just 16 points (two in overtime).
COUGARS CLAW 'CATS IN PAC-10
Washington State was fortunate to defeat Arizona (3-5) on Saturday night. The Cougars had 433 yards of total offense (compared to 207 for Arizona) and limited Wildcats QB Jason Johnson to a 22-of-46, two-interception, one-TD game.
Plagued by turnovers (two fumbles and one interception) and a pair of missed field goals, the Cougars needed a strong effort from junior RB Jermaine Green (119 rushing yards) and an impressive performance from the defensive front to secure the hard-fought victory.
Junior DE D.D. Acholonu generated steady heat off the edge, once again proving why he's regarded as one of the top outside pass rushers in the Pac-10.
SOONERS' D SEEKS TO WREAK MORE HEISMAN HAVOC
Florida State junior RB Greg Jones was limited to just 34 yards rushing on 14 carries against Notre Dame on Saturday, basically ending any hopes for Jones to win the Heisman.
But Colorado junior RB Chris Brown maintained his Heisman momentum with another solid performance (149 yards rushing) on Saturday against Texas Tech. However, as was the case with Jones, everything hinges on his performance this week when the Buffaloes travel to Norman to face Oklahoma.
The Sooners' defense knocked Iowa State QB Seneca Wallace out of the Heisman race and will attempt to do the same with Brown.