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No luck needed

NOTRE DAME 34, FLORIDA STATE 24: Three turnovers in the third help Notre Dame pull away.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- The chant reverberated as if from a packed stadium, not a small contingent of Notre Dame fans in kelly green T-shirts nestled in one end zone.

"We are N.D."

"We are N.D."

One rarely heard the like at Doak Campbell Stadium during the past 15 seasons. If one did, Florida State's fans quickly drowned it out. But the times have changed.

The No.6 Fighting Irish, capitalizing on three consecutive turnovers, blew open a tied game midway through the third quarter and handily beat the No.11 Seminoles 34-24 on Saturday before a record crowd of 84,106.

"We are N.D."

"We are N.D."

photo
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
FSU's Robert Morgan drops a pass during the first quarter against Notre Dame.
The Seminoles (5-3) said all week this was a "defining game." That this was an opportunity to prove to the nation that last season's 8-4 record and overtime loss to Louisville in September were anomalies.

That their narrow loss to top-ranked Miami on Oct.12 was no fluke. That they were again among the elite.

"I think it throws us back in the question mark category," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "If we had won this ballgame, I would have had the sense to say, "Hey, men, we're back like we were. We have a chance now to go and do some things.'

"But now a question mark has come up again."

For FSU and its quarterback, redshirt sophomore Chris Rix.

Notre Dame rendered FSU one-dimensional, shutting down its running game (a season-low 93 yards, 138 fewer than its average). With the burden on the passing game, Rix struggled in the second half. He completed 5 of 15 for 79 yards and committed three turnovers reminiscent of his play early last season, when he turned the ball over three times against North Carolina and six against Miami.

"It's been two years of those mistakes," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "Everybody's like, "Put it behind us. Put it behind us.' But we've really got to face the issue: Why are we losing? That's what we have to discuss in a team meeting (today)."

Several players said they were angry and frustrated and advocated a lineup change. Backup Adrian McPherson led two touchdowns drives during the final 4:20, and Bowden said he might consider a change.

"I guess when you look back at it, the most exciting thing all day offensively was the play of the other quarterback coming in and making some things happen," Bowden said. "I'll have to look at that pretty darn good this week."

But don't give the Irish (8-0) any question marks, even though first-year coach Tyrone Willingham said he had "mixed emotions" about his veteran team.

"I think we did some great things, and we are very fortunate to win against another very, very good football team," he said. "But there are some things we need to clean up a bit."

The Irish, who could move up from No.3 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, showed big-play capability with a 65-yard touchdown from Carlyle Holiday to Arnaz Battle on their first play.

Entering the game, Notre Dame averaged 315 yards, 109th in the nation, and had only 301 on Saturday. But it proved, at least to FSU, that its aggressive and opportunistic defense isn't just lucky.

With the score 10-10 midway through the third, linebacker Courtney Watson picked off a Rix pass. It was Rix's first turnover since his game-ending interception in overtime at Louisville.

"We were trying to go play-action away from the field and get the linebacker to bite down on the run," Rix said. "We usually get that to happen, but the 'backer didn't bite down on it. He just made a great play."

Notre Dame turned that into a 35-yard field goal by Nicholas Setta. Then on second and 13 from FSU's 15, Rix scrambled, was hit and fumbled. Notre Dame recovered at the 2, and tailback Ryan Grant scored on the next play for a 20-10 lead.

On the ensuing kickoff, freshman Leon Washington fumbled for the second time in the game. (FSU recovered his lost punt.) The Irish recovered and Holiday hit Omar Jenkins in the right corner of the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown.

In all, the Irish turned three turnovers into 17 points in 4:23. Before the game, Notre Dame's penchant for forcing turnovers concerned Bowden most.

"It isn't luck," he said. "They work on it. They force them. We probably would have been better off when we had the ball on our end of the field running the ball and punting it out. But just count us in the club."

With Maryland, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford and Pittsburgh. (Air Force's one turnover did not lead to points.)

The Irish entered the game with 78 points off 20 takeaways.

Notre Dame's lead swelled to 34-10 on Grant's 31-yard run early in the fourth before McPherson sparked the offense with a 5-yard touchdown to Anquan Boldin and a 29-yarder to Nick Maddox.

"People have underestimated us all season," Grant said. "I don't think we have gotten the respect. But at the same time, that's part of the game. People are going to say what they're going to say.

"We know what type of players we have, what type of team we have. And we know what we have to do."

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