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Wednesday, November 27
Irish return to glory under Willingham

By Herb Gould
Special to

The ranks of the major-college independents -- once a bastion that included Miami, Florida State and Penn State as well as Notre Dame and the service academies -- continues to go the way of the dinosaur. Two of the six remaining independents, South Florida (Conference USA) and Utah State (Sun Belt), will play in conferences next fall. Another, Connecticut, will join Big East play in 2005.

Led by Notre Dame (10-2) and South Florida (9-2), the six independents had a conference-like run this fall, even finishing with a .500 record (35-35). While the Irish are bowl-bound -- South Florida couldn't find a home -- the other independents also had their good moments.

UConn (6-6) pulled off an impressive victory at Iowa State in its season finale to wind up at .500. Navy (2-10) ended the season on a high note by routing Army. Utah State (4-7) once again was a high-scoring aerial circus, while Troy State (4-8) had a defense capable of going further if its offense had cooperated.

MVP: Marquel Blackwell, one of the best players you never heard of. received mentions for national quarterback awards, and deservedly so. In leading South Florida to its first bowl, Blackwell had an outstanding season, throwing 18 touchdowns passes with only three interceptions while completing 57 percent of his passes.

Coach of the year: Some late-season struggles don't diminish the remarkable job Tyrone Willingham did in his first year at Notre Dame. A 10-2 regular season might seem disappointing at the moment, but it would have looked marvelous at the start of the season. Willingham might not get the national coach-of-the-year awards that he was being anointed with during ND's 8-0 start, but he's still deserving of them, late swoon or not.

Newcomer of the year: Connecticut running back Terry Caulley. The 5-foot-7, 178-pounder from Lusby, Md., rushed for 191 yards in UConn's season finale, a 37-20 upset win at Iowa State, and finished as the nation's leading freshman runner, with 124.7 yards per game. Caulley was seventh in the nation, ahead of Ohio State's freshman sensation, Maurice Clarett (119 yards a game).

Biggest surprise: Expectations for Notre Dame, which looked like it was in for a rebuilding year, had to be revised when the Irish started 8-0, including a three-game Big Ten sweep and back-to-back road wins at Air Force and Florida State. The Irish went from middling prospects to being in the hunt for the national championship.

Biggest disappointment: After recapturing the national spotlight, Notre Dame came back to earth, splitting its last four games. The upset loss to Boston College and a humiliating rout at USC weren't the only struggles in ND's late-season skid. The Irish needed to rally to beat struggling Navy.

Connecticut showed much progress as it moved a step closer to full Big East membership in 2005.

MVP: Terry Caulley. See Independents newcomer of the year.

Biggest disappointment: A couple of close losses, to Ball State 24-21 in overtime and at Vanderbilt 28-24, kept the Huskies from finishing with a winning record.

Did you know: Connecticut finished with a .500 record (6-6) in its first full season as a Division I-A team.

Navy's blowout victory over Army left it with an encouraging finish under new coach Paul Johnson, even if the record doesn't seem to indicate that.

MVP: Quarterback Craig Candeto led the Midshipmen in rushing, passing, total offense and scoring.

Biggest disappointment: Navy couldn't finish off a golden opportunity to beat Notre Dame, falling 30-23 when it allowed 15 points in the final 4½ minutes.

Did you know: Navy has just three victories in the last three seasons, and two have come against Army. The other was a 38-7 upset win at SMU in the Midshipmen's season opener this fall.

Notre Dame
Tyrone Willingham put the Irish back on the map with their remarkable 8-0 start, and even with their late struggles, they have to be encouraged about the future.

MVP: Senior All-American cornerback Shane Walton was an anchor on an opportunistic defense that was critical to the success of the Irish, who often struggled offensively. Walton's seven interceptions are the most at Notre Dame in 13 seasons.

Biggest disappointment: After weathering a trying first-half schedule by finding ways to win, the Irish saw their unbeaten-season plans detonated in a 14-7 home loss to Boston College.

Did you know: At 10-2, Notre Dame has its winningest season since 1993, when it went 11-1.

South Florida
South Florida was one of the best teams you never heard of. The Bulls figure to warrant more attention when they join Conference USA next season.

MVP: Marquel Blackwell. See Independents MVP.

Biggest disappointment: South Florida outgained Oklahoma 328-239 but lost 31-14 when it gave up three turnovers that set up three Sooner touchdowns and was whistled for 15 penalties for 124 yards.

Did you know: The Bulls, who join Conference USA next season, posted a 4-0 record against their future league rivals this fall, beating Southern Miss, East Carolina, Memphis and Houston.

Troy State
Life in Division I-A wasn't kind to the Trojans this season. They had a solid defense, but struggled when they had the ball.

MVP: Naazir Yamini, the Trojans' 5-11, 234-pound middle linebacker, led the defense in tackles for the second straight season. Among his 113 tackles were three sacks.

Biggest disappointment: Troy State's offense managed just 18.2 points a game, 111th out of 117 Division I-A schools.

Did you know: Troy State's 4-8 finish was coach Larry Blakeney's worst record in 12 years as the Trojans' coach.

Utah State
The Aggies once again had a marvelous passing game, but not much on defense, which led to some exciting games, even if they didn't always go Utah State's way.

MVP: Senior quarterback Jose Fuentes threw for a school-record 3,268 yards and was ranked eighth in the nation in total offense (287.6 yards a game).

Biggest disappointment: The Aggies had big trouble stopping people. They allowed 39.3 points a game, 111th out of 117 Division I-A teams.

Did you know: After playing two seasons as an independent when the Big West stopped sponsoring football, Utah State will compete in the far-flung Sun Belt Conference next fall.

Herb Gould covers college football for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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