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Notre Dame 21, Air Force 14

©Associated Press
October 20, 2002

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Notre Dame's offense finally produced an effort worthy of a top-10 team. That doesn't mean its defense took the night off.

Ryan Grant ran for 190 yards and a touchdown, and the seventh-ranked Fighting Irish stuffed the nation's top rushing team, beating Air Force 21-14 Saturday night to remain unbeaten.

Notre Dame won this battle between two of college football's biggest surprises by taking advantage of its size up front -- up to 60 pounds heavier than Air Force's line -- to produce a season-high 447 total yards.

Quarterback Carlyle Holiday scored two touchdowns, a 1-yard sneak in the third quarter and a 53-yard run in the first quarter, Notre Dame's longest of the season.

The Irish (7-0) are off to their best start since opening the 1993 season with 10 straight wins despite an offense that was among the nation's worst coming into the game against the 18th-ranked Falcons.

"I think our offensive line, our backs, our entire offensive team did an excellent job of execution," said Tyrone Willingham, who joined Jesse Harper (1913-14) and Ara Parseghian (1964) as the only Notre Dame coaches to win their first seven games.

"We eliminated a lot of the mistakes we've had in previous weeks."

Air Force (6-1), playing in front of a record crowd of 56,409, couldn't keep Notre Dame's defenders out of the backfield and wasn't able to get around the speedy Irish on the outside.

The Falcons finished with just 104 yards rushing, 235 below their average.

Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said nothing the Irish did was all that surprising.

"They just executed very well," he said.

"It seemed like tonight we were just a step, maybe an inch or two, from making a play."

The Falcons had trouble doing that because the Irish all but shut down Chance Harridge. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Air Force quarterback was elusive in his first six games, running for 615 yards and 15 touchdowns -- tied for most in the nation.

But Notre Dame consistently had two players in Harridge's face immediately after he made the first fake on the option. The Irish also kept the running backs from reaching the corner on the outside.

Harridge finished with just 31 yards on 13 carries. He also was just 6-of-14 for 57 yards, and he had a pass intercepted by Shane Walton in the third quarter. It was Walton's sixth of the season.

"I thought they had a good plan and I thought they executed that plan," DeBerry said. "We didn't block them very well."

Notre Dame dominated most of the way, totaling 199 more yards than Air Force in the first half. But the Irish allowed the Falcons to stay in the game with three fumbles and two missed field goals by Nicholas Setta.

Holiday fumbled on Notre Dame's first drive when he was sacked by Cameron Hodge, then he put the ball on the ground again when he was blindsided by Jon Hicks on a run up the middle.

Air Force didn't capitalize on the first fumble, but Marchello Graddy returned the second one 21 yards for the game's first score.

Notre Dame led 14-7 at halftime on touchdown runs by Holiday and Grant, but Air Force quickly tied it after Sean Rodgers stripped Vontez Duff on the second-half kickoff. Kenny Smith recovered at the Notre Dame 16, and Harridge scored six plays later on a 1-yard sneak.

Setta pushed a 41-yard attempt wide right in the second quarter, and he missed to the left on a 36-yarder in the third.

Still, Willingham said he didn't think the turnovers had much of an effect.

"The mistakes that cause turnovers, I don't think they bothered our guys one bit," he said.

Notre Dame took a 21-14 lead midway through the third on the 1-yard sneak by Holiday. He scored on the 53-yard run last in the first quarter after being flushed from the pocket.

Air Force had just 57 yards rushing on 23 carries in the first half.

Offensively, the Irish easily sealed off the smaller Falcons at the line of scrimmage, giving Grant up to 4 and 5 yards of cushion before he reached any tacklers.

Grant had 129 yards on 15 carries in the first half, and he scored on an 18-yard run late in the second quarter through a huge hole up the middle.

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