A magical day in Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Preseason All-America linebacker Courtney Watson didn't play in Notre Dame's season opener against Washington State and for much of the first 45 minutes of Saturday's game, neither did the rest of the Irish.

But this is Notre Dame, after all, where many of the sellout audience of 80,795 wore T-shirts that read, "There's a Magic in the Sound of Their Name. Here Comes the Irish." Corny, but true, especially as 16th-ranked Notre Dame turned a near WSU blowout into a 29-26 overtime victory and subsequent hugfest in the stadium tunnel.

There was ND coach Tyrone Willingham embracing any player in his sight line. There was athletic director Kevin White happily hugging the leftovers, not even bothering to wipe the players' sweat off his blue blazer. There was Washington State coach Bill Doba wondering how his Cougars gave up 26 consecutive points, missed a 35-yarder in OT, and left the campus with a 1-1 record.

"Whew," said Doba, before letting loose with a heavy sigh that could be heard from South Bend to Pullman. "That was a hell of a ballgame."

And his team lost.

Actually, it was a hell of a half ballgame, maybe less. Flatter than a stadium bleacher seat, the Irish did little, if anything, right in the first half. Blame it on first-game nerves ("It's the thing coaches have nightmares about," said Willingham.). Blame it on a geeked-up Washington State team. Blame a tiny bit on the absence of Watson.

Watson, the team's leading tackler from a season ago and a Butkus Award finalist, was suspended for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. A five-paragraph press release was distributed shortly before kickoff and afterward, Willingham would only say that Watson's one-game suspension were related to "events that happened outside Courtney's control."

Meanwhile, the rest of the Notre Dame roster apparently felt compelled to join Watson in spirit. So uninspired was the performance that the Notre Dame crowd was busy booing the Irish as early as the second quarter.

Who could blame them? The same program that gave you 10 wins and a ballbag's worth of memories a season ago played Saturday as if this were the annual Blue and Gold spring game, nothing more. In the first half alone Notre Dame had a grand total of three points, eight rushing yards and three lost fumbles (one went for a WSU touchdown). It also missed a field goal attempt and its longest pass completion measured exactly 11 yards. All things considered, the Irish were fortunate to only trail 19-3 at halftime.

"I think we probably made every mistake you can in the first half," said ND offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick.

Probably? The Notre Dame offensive line, which returned only one starter, was having difficulty picking up the extra defender WSU coaches stuck in the box. Irish quarterback Carlyle Holiday spent much of the cloudless afternoon becoming close, personal friends with the turf. His uniform had more grass stains than ND fans had plaid.

"A lot of things about today were ugly," said Bob Morton, the cowboy-hat, big-belt-buckle-wearing ("Texas To The Bone") Notre Dame center.

Ugly start and middle. Beautiful finish -- if you have a jones for the Irish.

And speaking of Jones. . .

Notre Dame wouldn't have beaten Washington State without senior running back Julius Jones, who made his triumphant return after spending the entire 2002 season in a sort of academic exile. Dismissed from school because of grades, Jones spent the year in Arizona, rehabilitated his GPA, and worked his way into the good graces of Willingham, as well as the tailback rotation.

After a third Nicholas Setta field goal whittled the WSU lead to 19-9 early in the fourth quarter, and a Vontez Duff hit forced a Cougar fumble and ND recovery, Jones began to assert himself. He broke several tackles on his way to an 18-yard gain that would lead to a Holiday TD pass. And with 5:03 remaining in regulation, he broke even more tackles on his way to a 19-yard scoring run.

"It was a little emotional," said Jones of his return to Notre Dame. "It felt the exact same way I imagined it."

But Jones couldn't have figured on Washington State tying the score, 26-26, with 53 seconds left to play in the fourth quarter. He couldn't have thought WSU kicker Drew Dunning, who hit four field goals in the Cougars' opener, would miss a 35-yarder in OT. But Setta making the game-winner, that he could imagine. Everyone could.

"Nick Setta's my hero," said ND free safety Glenn Earl.

As it turned out, Setta's 40-yard overtime kick was strikingly similar to a field goal he made in practice in the past week or so. Willingham constructed a situation almost exactly the same as Saturday's OT set-up: ND wins the toss, elects to defend, stops the opponent, positions the ball just so on the field, then sends out Setta for winning field goal. Except in the practice Setta kicked the game-winner on fourth down, not third.
Willingham won't quibble. Neither will Notre Dame, which knows it has to play markedly better next Saturday, when it faces Michigan at The Big House.

"Next week we have to pull a few more rabbits out of the hat," said Earl. "We pulled a bunch out today."

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at gene.wojciechowski@espnmag.com.