Photo courtesy of Notre Dame athletics
From 1997 to 2004, the home team won each of the annual rival meetings between Notre Dame and Michigan. Most of the contests, however, were competitive.
The closest one played during that stretch came on this day 20 years ago. The Fighting Irish stopped a late 2-point conversion to hold off Michigan, 25-23.
Setting the Stage
Notre Dame had started 2-0 under first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham as it got set to host the Wolverines on Sept. 14, 2002. The Fighting Irish were ranked No. 20 after impressive wins over Maryland and Purdue. Despite winning both games, Notre Dame had yet to score an offensive touchdown.
Also 2-0, Michigan arrived as the seventh-ranked team following wins over Washington and Western Michigan. Michigan was looking for its first win in South Bend since 1994.
Walton Saves the Day
Notre Dame led by nine early but trailed 17-16 entering the fourth quarter. The final period was two minutes old when the Fighting Irish went ahead for good.
Ryan Grant’s second touchdown of the day, a 2-yard run, put Notre Dame up 22-17. Following a Michigan turnover, Nick Setta’s 46-yard field goal extended the Notre Dame lead to eight with less than 11 minutes to go.
Michigan, however, refused to go quietly. With 2:53 remaining, Michigan’s John Navarre found Bennie Joppru for an 8-yard touchdown. Down 25-23, the Wolverines were forced to go for two and the tie.
Navarre fired toward the end zone, but his pass for future All-American Braylon Edwards was knocked to the ground by Notre Dame’s Shane Walton. Michigan would get one last chance, but this time, Walton intercepted Navarre to preserve the win with 21 seconds left.
The contest was hardly a thing of beauty as the teams combined for eight turnovers. Grant led all rushers with 132 yards in the win.
Throughout the 2002 season, Notre Dame proved to be an opportunistic team. After a 5-6 season in 2001, Notre Dame started 8-0 with four wins over ranked teams. The Fighting Irish would ascend to No. 4 in the polls before dropping three of their final five games to finish 10-3 and ranked 17th.
Michigan would also finish 10-3 with losses to Big Ten co-champions Iowa and Ohio State, the eventual national champion. After beating Florida in the Outback Bowl, Michigan finished No. 9 in the final AP Poll.
Its lone non-conference loss during a solid campaign was a heartbreaker in South Bend. It came on this day two decades ago.