by John Vannie
On a chilly, gloomy day in South Bend, Notre Dame played poorly on defense, gave up a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and could not run the ball with any consistency against one of the worst defenses in Division I football. Although that sounds like a recipe for disaster, the Irish turned to Brady Quinn and the best player in the country delivered a 45-26 victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Quinn continued to rewrite the Notre Dame record book with 346 passing yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Jeff Samardzija caught six passes for 177 yards and a 43-yard score to set an Irish record with 23 career TD receptions. Derrick Mayes, who was on hand for the festivities, previously held the mark.
Rhema McKnight hauled in six catches including two touchdowns and John Carlson had eight receptions and a score. Darius Walker rushed for 86 yards, most of which came in the second half. Walker reached the end zone in the fourth quarter to turn out the lights on the Tar Heels.
The Irish tried to make a statement on the first series as Quinn started out with the no-huddle, two minute offense. The result was a crisp 65-yard scoring drive in 2:03 capped by a seven yard pass to McKnight. Although the Notre Dame defense looked strong on Carolina’s first series, the Irish went to sleep as Joe Dailey directed an 80-yard march for the tying score. The key plays were a 35-yard run by Ron McGill and a 21-yard reception by Hakeem Nicks.
Notre Dame quickly restored order by scoring on its next two possessions for a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter. When Carl Gioia, who has become a very reliable kicker, added a 27 yard field goal a few minutes later, Irish fans figured to keep warm in the stands by doing plenty of pushups.
The momentum changed on the next play, however, as Brandon Tate broke through poor attempts at tackling by Notre Dame and returned the kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. A missed PAT kept the margin at 24-13, but Quinn had plenty of time to produce one of his patented scoring drives before halftime.
Although Notre Dame did not follow the script, the Irish scored in a familiar way as Tom Zbikowski returned a Carolina punt 52 yards for a 31-13 lead a few minutes before intermission. This was Zbikowski’s first special team touchdown of the season, and the senior finally appears to be getting healthy after a difficult month.
Based on recent performances, Irish fans expected the defense to take control in the second half against an outmanned opponent. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Dailey and Hicks led the Tar Heels on a 78-yard march to close the gap to 31-19 just five minutes into the third quarter.
Notre Dame’s offense was unfazed that Carolina was still in the game, and it seemed as though the Irish could score whenever needed. David Grimes gave his team a boost by returning the ensuing kickoff across midfield, and Samardzija hauled in his record-setting TD pass three plays later to give his team a 38-19 lead.
The Tar Heels stubbornly refused to go away. Dailey and Nicks hooked up on the next play from scrimmage on a 72-yard scoring pass as Notre Dame’s Terrail Lambert was burned badly. Nicks caught six passes on the day for 171 yards and two scores, which placed him alongside Mario Manningham as Lambert’s least favorite player.
Leading by only 38-26 heading into the final period, the Irish added a clinching touchdown by Walker to account for the final 45-26 margin. The Heels did not go quietly, however, as a late hit on Quinn sparked open hostilities between the teams and the referees stayed busy until the final whistle. Coach Charlie Weis quickly cleared his bench and kept his franchise quarterback from further jeopardy.
Despite several instances of poor defensive play and the special teams breakdown, the outcome was never really in doubt. Quinn has been good enough to compensate for Notre Dame’s mistakes and weaknesses, which is remarkable considering the lack of production in the running game and inconsistent pass protection. Quinn was sacked three times and hit hard on several occasions by Carolina, but the senior is one of the toughest players to wear the Irish uniform.
There were plenty of positives in this game besides Quinn and his receiving corps to comfort the legions of restless fans. Notre Dame’s defensive line turned in its best effort of the season, and freshman running back James Aldridge looks as though he is ready to take on a larger role in the offense. The 8-1 Irish travel to play Air Force next week in search of improved execution in the running game and overall consistency on defense. They will need both to end the regular season on a positive note and return to the BCS.
John’s Top 20
1. Ohio State
5. Notre Dame
14. West Virginia
15. Virginia Tech
18. Texas A&M;
19. Georgia Tech
20. Wake Forest
John’s Bottom Ten
2. Miami (Fla.)
4. (tie) San Diego State, UNLV
5. Anyone from the MAC
7. Michigan State
8. North Carolina
10. Iowa State
Dishonorable mention: Illinois, Mississippi