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Walker's debut one for the ages

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- At Mood Swing University, the fans were all over the field Saturday evening -- one week after they were all over the coach.

We should've seen it coming, precisely because there was no way to see it coming.

The first two Saturdays of September were a microcosm of the wildly unpredictable Tyrone Willingham Era at Notre Dame. Willingham arrived in 2002 amid low expectations and promptly won his first eight. Then, with canonization proceedings underway, he lost three of his last five -- and, through a miserable 2003, 10 of 15.

This year continued to follow the established zig-zag pattern. The favored Fighting Irish bombed against Brigham Young, spawning widespread predictions that The End Is Near, If Not Past. With demonization proceedings underway, Ty's guys naturally rebounded with a stunning 28-20 upset of No. 7 Michigan on Saturday.

"If I would speculate right now," Willingham said, surveying the postgame media gathering, "most of you sitting in this room would probably have said I'd be right where I am right now."

The thinnest trace of a smile graced Willingham's permastoic face. He knows he rolled 1-1 the hard way.

Keeping with the unforeseeable theme, the Irish won as 13½-point underdogs thanks to the dancing feet of a running back who had never carried the ball as a collegian until Saturday. If you believe the pregame depth chart, freshman Darius Walker came into this game as a fourth-stringer. He walked out of it with his own place in the unparalleled Notre Dame lore.

Walker's first five quarters as a collegian consisted of sitting and watching the Irish go nowhere on the ground. This was undoubtedly frustrating, but it also served a purpose: Walker was the ultimate stealth back as far as Michigan was concerned. The Wolverines couldn't have had any kind of scouting report on him.

Once Walker finally got the ball as a college player on the second play of the second quarter, he scooted outside for five yards. Then it was around the right for seven. Suddenly the plodding Irish, who had been stuffed between the tackles, had a means to attack the edge of the Michigan defense.

A star was born to a previously faceless (and punchless) offense. When it was over the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Walker had skipped around and sliced through Michigan's stout defense for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.

"He gave us a spark," Willingham said. "Just that simple, a spark. The right person at the right time can give you that spark that everyone feeds off of."

The Irish fed off of it like starving hyenas, exploding for 28 consecutive points after trailing 9-0 at halftime. Walker's running liberated Brady Quinn and the passing game and seemed to pump up an already-resolute Notre Dame defense. The kid was a catalytic converter in cleats.

Even the band got fired up, mobbing Walker in the corner of the end zone after one of his end zone runs. Ironically enough, a team that motivated itself all offseason with reminders of its 38-0 punking from Michigan in 2003 had to turn to a kid who wasn't even around for that game.

But who clearly got the message.

"We kind of wanted to come out and whup up on them," Walker said, "since they did us so bad last year."

Afterward he showed that he's not just ready for the spotlight on the field. Walker walked into the interview room, took one look at the gang of reporters waiting for him and mumbled, "Wow" -- then acted as if he's spent his entire life talking into microphones. He clearly has the personality to handle being a star.

"He wants the spotlight and kind of jells in it," said Walker's mother, LaVerne, one of 10 family members who flew to South Bend from their home in Lawrenceville, Ga., for the game.

Her son answered questions with scarcely a hitch, hem or haw. Gave himself "like a B or something" as a grade for his performance. Smiled and diplomatically said, "I don't know" when asked why he didn't play last week against BYU.

"I didn't get down," he said. "I was just disappointed we lost."

Last year he established himself as the most promising running back from Georgia named Walker since Herschel, whose state single-season touchdown record he broke. Saturday he established himself as an enticing heir to the celebrated No. 3 jersey, once worn by Joe Montana, Rick Mirer and (well, Beano Cook certainly thought highly of him) Ron Powlus.

Despite his Georgia roots, Walker was headed out of state. Despite his father's history, having played for Lou Holtz and alongside Houston Nutt at Arkansas, he wasn't going to be a Gamecock or a Razorback. He reduced his final college list to Notre Dame, Ohio State and Southern Cal. Notre Dame's academic renown and mystique closed the deal.

"The tradition here is really what drew me to this school," Walker said.

Now, coming from completely off-radar, he's part of it, and a prominent part of what Notre Dame's offense will be for the rest of this season. (How important is Darius Walker to the Notre Dame running game? Consider: He has 115 yards on the ground this season, and everybody else in blue and gold has a total of 31.)

But first he had to help quiet the riot of disappointment and disgust that had surrounded the Irish after the BYU debacle. Willingham says 1-1 is 1-1, no matter how unpredictably you get there, and there's some truth to that. But center John Sullivan also spoke the truth when he was asked how toxic the atmosphere could have been with an 0-2 start.

"I don't think it could have gotten any worse," he said. "So it's a good thing we won today."

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.