There are some games, and certain plays, you just never forget.
For Dantonio Burnette, his most memorable moment and biggest hit – “The Hit” – just happens to be from his last game at middle linebacker for N.C. State.
N.C. State (3-1, 1-0) and Notre Dame (2-3) will meet on a football field for the second time on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
The only other meeting was Jan. 1, 2003, in the Gator Bowl. It was Burnette, who came by his nickname “Thunder Dan” the honest way, that authored the biggest play of the game in one of N.C. State’s biggest wins in four decades.
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Notre Dame started the season 8-0 and reached No. 4 in the AP poll before finishing the regular season at 10-2 and No. 11.
N.C. State started the season 9-0, and hit No. 10 in the top 25, but lost three straight ACC games – to Georgia Tech, Virginia and nemesis Maryland – to fall to 10-3 and No. 17 before the bowl game.
With Notre Dame on N.C. State’s 1-yard line, Burnette knocked out Fighting Irish quarterback Carlyle Holiday about 10 minutes into the game.
Burnette, now the strength and conditioning coach for the Wolfpack, doesn’t have to Google the hit to remember it (although you can find it here on YouTube).
There’s a painting of the tackle, from 5:09 in the first quarter of N.C. State’s 28-6 win over the Fighting Irish, hanging in his office at the Murphy Center.
“They decided to run the quarterback, and the rest was history,” Burnette, 35, said.
It was such a great experience to play a program with such a storied tradition. It was a chance for us to leave a mark.
N.C. State strength coach Dantonio Burnette on his game against Notre Dame
That win culminated N.C. State’s 2002 season with a school-record 11 wins. It also pushed the Wolfpack to No. 12 in the final AP rankings, its highest final ranking since a No. 11 finish in 1974.
Quarterback Philip Rivers led the Wolfpack offense that season, throwing for 3,353 yards, and Burnette was Rivers’ equivalent on defense. Burnette had a team-best 144 tackles that season.
He finished with six tackles in the Gator Bowl, which was low for his standard (he had 476 career tackles), but no tackle that season was as important as the one on Holiday.
The 5-10 Burnette, who played at about 230 pounds, doesn’t remember the defensive call on the play but does remember Holiday, who was a run/pass threat for the Irish and coach Tyrone Willingham, leaving his feet.
On second-and-goal from the 1, Holiday took off to the right side of Notre Dame’s offensive line on a designed run. He had three blockers in front of him but nobody got a hat on “Thunder Dan.”
When Holiday jumped, Burnette caught him with a clean, form tackle. Holiday’s right shoulder took the force of the hit and he missed the rest of the game.
“For whatever reason, he decided to jump,” Burnette said. “As a linebacker, when you see something like that, your eyes get big. You don’t get too many opportunities to hit the quarterback anyway.”
Even by current ramped-up safety standards, Burnette’s hit was clean.
“You’re never trying to hurt someone,” Burnette said. “I remember seeing him just laying there and he didn’t get up. I knew it was going to change the game.”
It did and in N.C. State’s favor. Walk-on Pat Dillingham replaced Holiday and threw three interceptions, all to safety Rod Johnson.
“Carlyle going down, that hurt,” Notre Dame receiver Arnaz Battle said after the game. “After that we didn’t have a quarterback able to make plays.”
But N.C. State did. Rivers threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Jerricho Cotchery had 10 catches for 127 yards and running back T.A. McLendon added two scores as the Wolfpack celebrated the New Year’s Day bowl win.
For Burnette, and many N.C. State fans, it’s the defining memory of the last 37 years for a program that hasn’t won an ACC title since 1979.
Burnette was a part of other big wins at State. His first college game was a 23-20 road win over a ranked Texas team (No. 16) in 1999. His last two games were wins over No. 14 Florida State and No. 11 Notre Dame.
“We ended things on a really good note,” Burnette said. “It was a great time for our program.”
The return match with the Fighting Irish, who have subsequently joined the ACC in all sports but football, is 13 years in the making. Burnette is glad the current crop of Wolfpack players will get a chance to add to the history between the two schools.
“It was such a great experience to play a program with such a storied tradition,” Burnette said. “It was a chance for us to leave a mark.”
Burnette certainly did.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio