10:00 PM ET, October 19, 2002
Falcon Stadium, UNITED STATES AF ACA, CO
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) -- The Notre Dame offense finally produced an effort worthy of a top-10 team. That doesn't mean the Fighting Irish defense took the night off.
The Irish will focus on establishing their running game.
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 (7-0) won its first six games despite an offense that was among the nation's worst. The Irish won this battle between two of college football's biggest surprises by taking advantage of their size up front -- up to 60 pounds heavier than Air Force's line -- to produce a season-high 447 total yards.
"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 15th-ranked Falcons finished with just 104 yards rushing, 235 below their average.
"They didn't surprise with anything particularly they did. They just executed very well," Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said.
"It seemed like tonight we were just a step, maybe an inch or two, from making a play."
The Irish did it by focusing on Chance Harridge. The diminutive Air Force quarterback had been elusive during Air Force's first six games, running for 615 yards and 15 touchdowns -- tied for most in the nation.
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-for-14 passing for 57 yards, and he had a pass intercepted by Shane Walton in the third quarter. It was Walton's sixth pick 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 it with three fumbles and two missed field goals by Nicholas Setta.
Carlyle 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," said Willingham, whose team is off to its best start since opening the 1993 season with 10 consecutive victories.
Notre Dame took a 21-14 lead midway through the third on a 1-yard sneak by Holiday, his second touchdown of the game. He also scored on a 53-yard run 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.