Jan 1, 2003
By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Sports Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - A little trickery on offense. A lot of jarring hits on defense, especially the one that knocked the quarterback on his back and out of the game.
That was all No. 17 North Carolina State needed to dissolve the Irish mystique Wednesday in the Gator Bowl and state its case as a program on the rise.
Led by quarterback Philip Rivers and a defense that didn't give up a touchdown for the second straight game, the Wolfpack (11-3) finished off the best season in school history with a 28-6 victory over Notre Dame.
"We had a great season, then we put a stamp on it," coach Chuck Amato said. "To have (victory) No. 11 be Notre Dame, to win back-to-back against Florida State and Notre Dame, two of the best programs in America ... It's hard to do."
The defense didn't allow a touchdown in the last two games, and while the trick plays were entertaining Wednesday, it was linebacker Dantonio Burnette who set the tone.
The Irish had second-and-goal from the 1 on their second possession of the game when Carlyle Holiday ran right and was hammered by Burnette, separating his shoulder.
"When I hit him I heard him groan, and when I looked down he was still on the ground," Burnette said. "I was like, 'OK, this is going to turn the game around now."'
The Irish had to settle for a field goal, and they never found an answer for Rivers and a Wolfpack offense that made them look bad for the second game in a row.
Rivers completed 13 consecutive passes as N.C. State scored three touchdowns in the second quarter, one of them on a fumblerooski and another set up by a flea-flicker.
Early in the third quarter, Wolfpack receiver Bryan Peterson had more passing yards on two trick players (27) than either of the Irish quarterbacks.
"Every game they show you something you haven't seen," Notre Dame safety Glenn Earl said. "They were able to get us off balance. And they executed well."
The 11th-ranked Irish (10-3) lost Holiday and wound up losing their sixth consecutive bowl game.
This one put a damper on an otherwise remarkable year.
Coming off a 5-6 season, Notre Dame won its first eight games and started thinking about a record ninth national championship. Instead, the Irish lost three of their last five games.
"It's still a very good season," coach Tyrone Willingham said. "There are not that many 10-win teams in the country. At the same time, we have to become accustomed to winning our last game, whether it's the regular season or a bowl game."
N.C. State went 96 and 76 yards on consecutive drives, and there was nothing the Irish could do about it. Notre Dame, which allowed 145 points in its first 11 games, gave up 72 points in its last two.
Rivers, bobbing and weaving through the pass rush, was 23-of-37 for 228 yards and two touchdowns. Jerricho Cotchery caught 10 passes for 127 yards.
The Wolfpack defense did its part, hitting harder and with more purpose. It finished in style, denying a garbage score in the final seconds when Notre Dame had first-and-goal from the 2.
Rod Johnson, a senior safety who came in with one career interception, had three off Notre Dame backup Pat Dillingham, all in double- and triple-coverage.
The Wolfpack had never won more than 10 games in a season in their 111-year history, and saw this game - and this opponent - as a chance to start putting their program on the map.
"It seemed like we were the other team down here all week," Burnette said.
In what looked like sandlot football at times, N.C. State ran three trick plays during one drive.
On the fumblerooski, the linemen were upright and didn't move even after the ball was snapped to Rivers, who was in a short, shotgun formation. Rivers quickly slipped the ball under the legs of T.A. McLendon in front of him, and the freshman plowed in for a 3-yard score, his second touchdown.
N.C. State's defense never gave Dillingham much time to throw, or many options when he did manage to get the pass off. He threw into double coverage and was intercepted by Johnson late in the second quarter.
That led to another Wolfpack touchdown - set up by another trick play.
Rivers short-hopped a lateral to Bryan Peterson, who scooped it up and threw 24 yards to Joseph Gray. There was no one within 15 yards of the 260-pound tight end, but he fell down catching the ball.
Three plays later, Rivers found Cotchery for a 9-yard touchdown.
The Irish got inside the 25 three times in the second half, but managed only a field goal. Their last bowl victory was 24-21 against Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl.