By RICHARD ROSENBLATT
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Headed to the locker room after a successful debut as Notre Dame's coach, Tyrone Willingham spotted a friend.
So he handed off the Kickoff Classic trophy to one of his players and walked up to Condoleeza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser.
"She's a dear friend, and it was awfully nice to see her here," Willingham said. "She said she enjoyed the ballgame."
Rice had plenty of company. Notre Dame fans everywhere rejoiced after the Irish beat No. 21 Maryland 22-0 at a packed Giants Stadium on Saturday night.
"I would hope that it's getting back to what is part of Notre Dame," Willingham said. "When Notre Dame travels, Notre Dame follows."
A crowd of 72,903 - mostly Fighting Irish fans - showed up to see whether Willingham might be what the school needs to turn around its fortunes and again challenge for a national championship. The Irish have won eight national crowns, but the last one was in 1988.
What the fans got against Maryland was an efficient if not exciting win in the final Kickoff Classic. In a promising first game, Willingham already has his first shutout. His predecessor, Bob Davie, managed just one shutout in five years - against Navy in 1998.
"Any time you can get a shutout against a balanced and talented team like that is almost unbelievable," Willingham said. "We were pumped up to play the game with a new team and a new coach, but the key was not too be too emotionally prepared, and make the right decisions."
"We're better then we showed," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said.
Nick Setta delivered a school record-tying five field goals, and Vontez Duff returned a punt 76 yards for a third-quarter touchdown. Willingham simply paced the sideline, rarely showing emotion, and applauded his players as they came off the field.
For a change, Notre Dame dominated in every way. The Irish held onto the ball for more than 41 minutes and outgained Maryland in total yardage 356-133. Holiday completed 17 of 27 passes for 226 yards. With the offense controlling the game, the Irish special teams came through with all the points.
The Irish took a 9-0 lead on field goals by Setta of 51, 32 and 18 yards. Setta was selected the MVP of the game.
The defense had a star of its own in cornerback Shane Walton. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior tied a school record with three interceptions and stopped Maryland's Mario Merrills for a 3-yard loss on fourth-and-4 from the Irish 26 in the third quarter. Walton's third interception came with 5:51 left in the game, at the Notre Dame 39.
"Notre Dame has a good defense, but our kids just lost their poise," Friedgen said. "Give credit to Notre Dame. They did some things differently than we anticipated, but it's not what they did. It's how they did it."
The Irish broke open the game when Duff, a 5-11, 194-pound junior, took a punt at the Irish 24, slipped two would-be tacklers and weaved his way in for a touchdown 4:32 into the second half. Setta added a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter and a 24-yarder early in the fourth quarter.
Setta missed a 56-yard attempt on Notre Dame's opening drive.
With top running back Bruce Perry out with an injury, the Terps couldn't run on the Irish, and new quarterback Scott McBrien couldn't get the offense going. The left-hander was replaced in the third quarter Chris Kelley. McBrien, who returned in the fourth quarter, was 9-of-23 for 84 yards with two interceptions.
Willingham hoped his debut would provide no surprises. All he wanted, he said, was a win. He got the win all right, but Irish fans have to be surprisingly satisfied with what looks like a transformation from a 6-5 season in 2001 followed by a turbulent offseason.
For now, the Irish can forget the past and talk about a victory in their season-opener.