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  • Phil Houk

Will 2020 Be a 2002 Repeat?

Updated: Oct 30, 2020


Last week with a commanding 45-3 victory, the Irish had the look of a team that may have found some answers on the offensive side of the ball, and the defense accomplished something that ND hadn’t done in a long time. Its happened twice in the last two decades and one of those times was in 2002.

And there are some other parallels between the 2020 Irish and that team 18 years ago.

2002 was Ty Willingham’s first year and building off the theme of the student “shirt” that year, the season was dubbed “the Return to Glory".

And yes, the 2002 team did have something in common with the 2020 Irish, they played terrific defense, but struggled on offense.

The Defense was opportunistic and was led by consensus All-American cornerback Shane Walton. Walton, who had come to Notre Dame on a soccer scholarship, had 7 interceptions and the 2020 defense picked off 21 in total. They also racked up 12 fumble recoveries and the returned 6 of those turnovers for touchdowns.

9th best in the nation in points given up, Walton, Vontez Duff, Glenn Earl, Gerome Sapp, Courtney Watson, Mike Goolsby and company on consecutive Saturdays in mid- October, held Stanford and Pittsburgh to single digit points, just as the 2020 Irish has accomplished in the last 2 weeks.

On the other hand, the 2002 offense, in some ways like 2020, struggled. Carlyle Holiday and Pat Dillingham combined for a grand total of just 11 touchdown passes on the season, and it was a converted quarterback, Arnaz Battle that led the team in receiving. Running back Ryan Grant was their most reliable weapon as the Irish best offensive strategy was to hope to control the clock.

Overall the 2002 offense ranked 108th out of 117 teams nationally in yards gained and 95th in scoring.

Despite the offensive struggles, the Irish that year won their first 8 games and reached #4 in the polls. But in week 9, the dream ended with a 14-7 loss to an unranked Boston College team. The Irish went on to drop their last 2 of the year to USC and to a Philip Rivers led North Carolina State team, in the Gator Bowl, to finish 10-3.

It is said that defense wins championships, but the lesson from 2002 is that a solid and balanced offense is necessary as well.

Last week the dominate play of Notre Dame’s defense continued, but more importantly an offensive outburst against a highly regarded Pittsburgh defense is a sign of hope that comparisons to the 2002 team will not define the 2020 Irish.

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