Autry Denson had a career day -- minus a few mistakes.
While running for a career-best 189 yards and a touchdown as the No. 16 Irish beat Baylor 27-3 on Saturday, Denson also threw an interception and lost a fumble, tarnishing an otherwise brilliant performance.
With runs of 37, 32 and 24 yards, Denson bested his previous career-high of 162 yards by six yards before the first half was done, and his performance moved him within 174 yards of becoming the all-time leading rusher in Notre Dame history.
His mistakes also set up Baylor's (2-6) only points of the game and killed an early scoring chance for the Irish (6-1).
For Baylor coach Dave Roberts, it was bittersweet watching the Irish churn out 462 yards, including 329 on the ground, its best rushing performance in two years. He helped recruit several key players, including Denson, as the Irish offensive coordinator from 1994 to 1996.
"I'm happy for them," Roberts said. "You want guys to do well. You just want your guys to do better. It was just a matter of being able to execute, and we weren't able to do that today."
Unable to get much going on offense, the Bears were held to 38 yards rushing on 33 carries and finished with 172 yards.
That helped negate several Denson mistakes, including a halfback pass intended for quarterback Jarious Jackson that was intercepted by Gary Baxter and returned 59 yards to the Notre Dame 10. Baylor stalled at the 1 and Matt Bryant kicked a 18-yard field goal with 9:44 left in the half that tied it 3-3.
Notre Dame coach Bob Davie later said Jackson misread a signal from the sideline and mistakenly called for a halfback pass, which was easily picked off with Baylor playing a zone defense.
"I didn't see the safety," said Denson, who switched from quarterback to running back in high school. "I couldn't see over the line, so I just thought the only person out there was Jarious and the guy trailing him, so I tried to lead him and the safety was playing center field and he just picked it off."
Denson also fumbled on Notre Dame's first possession at the Baylor 29 on an option pitch when he was hit by Robert Neal.
"I was surprised. I was always taught it's a lack of courage that you fumble, so I guess I'm just saying it was a lack of courage that I fumbled," Denson said. "I won't make any excuses. The ball hit my hand. Whether I got hit or not isn't relevant."
After shaking off its early problems, Notre Dame scored three times in a stretch of 5 minutes, 47 seconds to take control. Three plays after a penalty wiped out an end zone interception by Baylor's Nikia Codie, Denson's 2-yard run gave the Irish a 10-3 lead with 4:47 left in the half. Jackson's 24-yard scoring pass to Malcolm Johnson with 1:11 left made it 17-3 at halftime, and his 66-yard throw to Bobby Brown a minute into the third quarter made it 24-3.
"It felt good, especially going against coach Roberts, the guy that recruited me to come here," said Brown, who had 73 yards receiving after coming into the game with just 89 on the season. "I wanted to show him first off that he did a good job recruiting and made a mistake by leaving."
Jackson, another former Roberts pupil, was 5-of-9 for 133 yards and also ran six times for 66 yards.
Despite all the impressive offensive numbers, Davie said the Irish still aren't playing up to their capabilities. They'll also be without backup quarterback Arnaz Battle for at least the next two weeks with a sprained shoulder after he came in early in the fourth quarter to relieve Jackson.
"We didn't play as well as we could have, but we played well enough to win, and I think that's the trademark of this football team," Davie said.
"Any time you can win 27-3, you certainly feel like you've got things going in the right direction."
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