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Published: Sunday, 10/13/2002

Irish find a way (again) to stay perfect (6-0)

Notre Dame linebacker Justin Tuck hits Pittsburgh quarterback Rod Rutherford, causing a fumble that the Irish recovered during the fourth quarter. Notre Dame linebacker Justin Tuck hits Pittsburgh quarterback Rod Rutherford, causing a fumble that the Irish recovered during the fourth quarter.
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Not even the most loyal of Notre Dame fans can argue against anyone saying that the eighth-ranked Irish are the most offensively challenged team among the Top 10.

Yet it's hard to knock any team that consistently finds ways to win.

Notre Dame's latest triumph - 14-6 over Pittsburgh yesterday - played out in the same style as the Irish's previous victories under new head coach Tyrone Willingham. An opportunistic defense proved to be Notre Dame's best offense at Notre Dame Stadium to help run the Irish record to 6-0.

Pittsburgh's offense produced 402 yards, including 313 passing yards for quarterback Rod Rutherford, who completed 19 of 43 passes. But the Irish defense registered eight sacks, two fumble recoveries and a game-sealing interception while yielding only two field goals to Pittsburgh (5-2).

“We're learning that the most important thing is to win,” said Willingham, who becomes only the third coach in the program's history to win his first six games. “No matter how we win; just win.”

The last time the Irish won their first six games was in 1993, when they prevailed in their first 10 games and climbed to No. 1 in the polls before losing to Boston College.

The Panthers held the Irish to 185 total yards, including only 40 yards rushing on 32 attempts. The combined 20 points marked the lowest scoring output at Notre Dame Stadium since Oct.11, 1986, when Pittsburgh beat Notre Dame 10-9.

This year's Notre Dame team isn't one to be defined by statistics. Irish defensive end Justin Tuck and defensive back Preston Jackson proved instrumental in the Irish remaining undefeated heading into next Saturday's game at Air Force. Tuck had a team-high four sacks and Jackson intercepted a Rutherford pass with 1:05 remaining to keep the Irish win streak intact.

“I don't think you can say enough about this defense,” Willingham said. “They stepped it up and had confidence in themselves and made big plays.”

With the Irish leading 7-6 midway through the fourth quarter, defensive back Glenn Earl set up Notre Dame's second touchdown. Earl jarred the football loose from a scrambling Rutherford and wound up recovering the fumble at the Panthers' 13.

Five plays later Ryan Grant took a handoff from Carlyle Holiday and plunged into the end zone from one yard out to give Notre Dame a 14-6 cushion with 7:08 remaining.

“Our coaching style and our playing style is we expect someone to step up and make a play,” Willingham said.

Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris left befuddled by what he witnessed. Considering how the Panthers played defense and how the offense was able to move the ball up and down the field, Harris said his team could have easily won the game.

“Our team is very disappointed with the results today,” Harris said. “I thought we played hard and tough and we had a chance to win the ballgame. Our defense played tremendous. Offensively we moved the ball, except for the third and fourth quarters we struggled to move the ball consistently.”

One scoring drive in the second quarter summed up the Notre Dame offense during the first 30 minutes. The Irish didn't record a first down until the second quarter, when Holiday led them on a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive. He concluded the drive by tossing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Arnaz Battle with 9:51 left in the half. Battle's second touchdown catch of the season gave Notre Dame a 7-3 lead. The quarterback-turned-receiver was a bright spot on an otherwise non-existent offense. Battle finished with a career-best 10 catches for 101 yards.

Holiday, who returned to the starting lineup after missing a game with a shoulder injury, established chemistry with Battle early and kept going back to him as the game progressed.

“We were taking what they gave us, and he happened to be in the right situations,” Holiday said of making Battle his primary target.

Pittsburgh's offense doubled Notre Dame's offensive output in the first half. The Panthers produced 284 total yards compared with 119 for the Irish.

ND NOTES: The Irish have 19 takeaways for the season, resulting in 78 points. ... The Irish have won or tied the turnover battle in every game this season.

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