SOUTH BEND, Ind. - A star may have been born and a season might have been saved yesterday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Standing on the precipice of a disastrous year, Notre Dame (1-1) clawed its way back to respectability with a 28-20 victory over eighth-ranked Michigan (1-1).
Counted out because of their 20-17 opening-week loss Sept. 4 at Brigham Young, the Irish re-inserted themselves into the national college football picture with smart play-calling and efficient second-half execution.
They were fueled by the fleet feet and superb field vision of freshman tailback Darius Walker, who made his college debut with six seconds left in the first quarter and had 31 carries, 115 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in the next 45 minutes of play.
"I was just glad I could help the team out," Walker said.
"He gave us a spark," Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. "The right person at the right time can give you that spark that everyone feeds off of."
Michigan couldn't contain him.
"He is a slippery guy our defense struggled to stop," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said.
Carr couldn't say the same about his running game.
With senior tailback David Underwood sidelined less than four minutes into the game with an injury, Michigan, playing tailback by committee, combined to rush for 56 yards on 30 carries.
The passing game did not do much better - quarterback Chad Henne was 20-for-45 for 240 yards, but had only one touchdown pass to a receiving corps Willingham had called one of the best in the country.
Michigan's first foray into the end zone came with 2:27 left in the game, when Henne found junior Steve Breaston on a 25-yard scoring pass to cut the Irish lead to 28-20.
That wasn't nearly enough against an Irish squad that was clicking in all three phases of the game.
The Irish defense softened the edge of three turnovers by guarding the end zone fervently.
The offense remained fearless despite giving up three interceptions, mixing trick plays and long throws downfield with the traditional Notre Dame menu of runs and short passes.
And the special teams came up with a blocked punt deep in Michigan territory early in the fourth quarter that led to a touchdown.
With 11:02 left in the third, the Irish cut Michigan's 9-0 halftime lead to 9-7 when quarterback Brady Quinn completed a three-play, 61-yard scoring drive with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Matt Shelton.
Michigan's Garrett Rivas booted a 47-yard field goal, his fourth of the day, about five minutes later, increasing Michigan's lead to 12-7.
The Wolverines wouldn't score again until it was too late.
But 1:12 into the fourth quarter, the Irish grabbed the lead for good when Walker swept 6 yards around the right side for his first college touchdown and a 14-12 lead.
He added his second touchdown a little more than two minutes later, running a 5-yard sweep to the left side following Gerome Collins' block of Adam Finley's punt that Corey May recovered at the 5.
"That really changed the momentum of the game and got the fans back into the game," Carr said. "I thought it gave Notre Dame a lot of confidence."
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