EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The crowning moment of first-year Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham's debut occurred with four seconds left on the clock. The Irish had dominated No. 20 Maryland in the Kickoff Classic and cornerback Shane Walton, partially elated by his three interceptions and also happy to be part of this historical night, walked over and embraced his coach.
It was a display that's been in the making since the freshman reported for camp.
Though Walton wasn't scheduled to report for another three days, he was on the field, helping freshman defensive back Mike Richardson with his backpedal. For a team that was divided and bickering a year ago, that was a step in the right direction. That's why Willingham, who stresses senior leadership, made Walton a captain for the opener. "He played just like I expect my captains to play," Willingham said. "He showed leadership with the way he carried himself and his performance was excellent."
It wasn't all Ty's excellent adventure, though. For a little more than the first seven minutes of the Kickoff Classic, it's safe to say the Irish offense struggled. But on a third and 11, when receiver Arnaz Battle caught a "hitch screen" and went 29 yards, the light went on and the offense generated some heat.
It's a short pass Willingham likes to call a "long handoff" in that it gets the ball to his best athletes in one-on-one situations. For Battle, it's like manna from heaven. "The thing I do best is make plays," Battle said. "I'd like to make that my signature play."
And speaking of signatures, all coaches have a saying about "autographing one's performance." After a 22-0 drubbing, Willingham affixed his usual calm signature to his maiden voyage. After solemly hoisting the Kickoff Classic trophy over his head, we talked briefly on the way to his news conference.
He looked relieved and sounded hoarse. His mouth wouldn't smile -- it seldom does -- but his eyes couldn't help it. The offense failed to score a touchdown, and was penalized 12 times, mostly for delay of game, but it didn't really matter. "It's far from perfect," he said. "But you know my only goal is to win. And I'll take that."