Oct 26, 2002
By MARK LONG
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Carlyle Holiday stepped out of the tunnel, back onto the field and was immediately surrounded by reporters. The band was playing, fans were cheering and Holiday was smiling.
This Notre Dame victory felt good, maybe better than all the rest.
Holiday threw for 185 yards and two touchdowns as the No. 6 Fighting Irish took their turnaround to a new plateau Saturday, beating No. 11 Florida State 34-24 to remain unbeaten and in the hunt for the national championship.
The victory solidified Notre Dame's return to national prominence under first-year coach Tyrone Willingham.
"To come in here and win was a big thing for our program," Holiday said. "Now we just have to keep on moving."
Despite its best start since 1993 and three wins over ranked opponents, Notre Dame entered the game as a double-digit underdog. The Irish needed a win over perennial powerhouse Florida State to prove that their fast start was no mirage.
"I think it says we're back," center Jeff Faine said.
Much like Oklahoma and Miami reclaimed their place among college football's elite teams after several rebuilding years, the Fighting Irish (8-0) are on track to do the same this season.
With their next three games against Boston College, Navy and Rutgers, the Irish could be 11-0 when they play at Southern California on Nov. 30. They have a legitimate shot to make the national championship game, especially if they keep playing like they have this season - with a solid defense and an opportunistic offense.
It's the same way they beat Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State earlier in the season. Now add Florida State (5-3) to the list.
The Irish capitalized on three turnovers during a four-minute span in the third quarter and shut down Florida State's productive running game. The Seminoles finished with 93 yards rushing, becoming the sixth team Notre Dame has held under 100 yards on the ground this season.
"When you watch film on Notre Dame like we did last week, you see how they win games," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "Then you wonder how you lose the very same way. Notre Dame doesn't make any turnovers, and they win. The biggest risk when you play Notre Dame is turnovers. ... They beat everybody the same way."
The 'Noles, meanwhile, continued to struggle with Chris Rix at quarterback, losing for the seventh time in 20 games.
Rix was 13-of-32 passing for 207 yards with two interceptions and a fumble. He looked sharp at times, making crisp throws and smart decisions to scramble out of the pocket for big gains. But he also threw two more passes that could have been picked off.
"They kept us bumfuzzled all day with their alignments and things," Bowden said.
With a week off following Florida State's one-point loss at Miami, many thought the Seminoles had found an identity as a running team and might be successful behind Jones and one of the best offensive lines in the country. Notre Dame didn't let it happen.
The Irish kept several defenders near the line of scrimmage, stopping Greg Jones and forcing Florida State to beat them with the pass. It worked perfectly. A week after stopping Air Force's ground attack, Notre Dame held Jones - who was coming off a 189-yard performance against No. 1 Miami - to 34 yards on 14 carries.
"If you can shut down the running game, which I think we were able to do and not allow them to have any big plays, then you make it difficult for them to sustain a drive," Willingham said. "If you can eliminate them sustaining a drive, then eventually at some point a team stops themselves."
Florida State stopped itself on three straight drives in the third quarter, turning the ball over three times in what proved to be the difference in the game.
On the Seminoles' second drive of the third quarter and with the game tied at 10, Rix threw his first interception since an overtime loss to Louisville. Notre Dame turned it into a field goal and a 13-10 lead.
When the flurry was over, the Irish had scored 17 points in just 4:23 - plenty of cushion for a defense that hasn't given up more than 23 points in any game this season.
Grant sealed the victory with a 31-yard touchdown run in the fourth. He finished with 19 carries for 94 yards and two touchdowns.
In all, the Irish used six big plays to score six times - the biggest of which were the three turnovers. But not to be overlooked was Notre Dame's first play from scrimmage, when Holiday faked a handoff, rolled right and hit Arnaz Battle for a 65-yard touchdown.
That was when Holiday started smiling.
Now those days as underdogs and overachievers probably are over for Notre Dame. But Willingham doesn't want to overstate the victory.
"It means an eighth victory and one more step. That's all," he said. "If you don't get the next one, what does it mean? Anytime you're undefeated, it's a good thing."