by John Vannie
Notre Dame’s football team had a bye last week, and most of the students returned from fall break just in time for the kickoff against UCLA. Meanwhile, 80,000 fans were forced to wait an extra 59 minutes for the Irish offense, who arrived just in time to pull out a heart-stopping 20-17 victory over the stunned Bruins.
Trailing 17-13 with 1:02 and no timeouts left, a bruised and battered Brady Quinn led his mates on an improbable 80 yard drive in only three plays. A 45-yard scoring pass to Jeff Samardzija with 27 seconds remaining provided the game winning points. Samardzija caught the ball over the middle from a scrambling Quinn, broke a tackle, somehow retained his balance and darted into the end zone.
The drive was improbable ending to a day of domination by both defenses. Neither team’s rushing attack generated so much as 50 yards, and both quarterbacks took a beating on third and long plays. The Bruins harassed Quinn all day, sacking him five times and hitting him on countless pass attempts. The Irish blitzed more than usual in an effort to unnerve UCLA’s Patrick Cowan, but he was able to burn Notre Dame’s secondary for two first half scores when his line gave him sufficient protection.
Notre Dame started poorly when Darius Walker fumbled on the first possession, but a missed field goal kept UCLA scoreless. Searching for a spark, Coach Karl Dorrell went for a fourth and one in his own territory on the Bruin’s second possession. The Irish stuffed Cowan’s attempted sneak and took over on the UCLA 44. Quinn surprised UCLA on the next series with a fourth down pass to John Carlson covering 24 yards. Three plays later, he hit Samardzija with a two-yard scoring pass and a 7-0 lead.
UCLA directed its passing attack at Irish cornerback Terrail Lambert, but the strategy backfired when the junior intercepted a deep sideline pass on the next series. Notre Dame was unable to capitalize despite excellent field position and punted to the Bruin 13. Cowan was able to squeeze out three first downs, but faced a third and long near midfield. The sophomore then surprised the Irish by hanging in the pocket and firing a strike over the middle to Marcus Everett, who completed the 54-yard scoring play by leaving Irish defenders in the dust.
With the game tied at 7-7, neither team was able to move the ball until Geoff Price shanked a punt and UCLA took over inside Notre Dame territory. Cowan again beat the blitz on third down and hit William Snead, who bounced off two Irish safeties and scored midway through the second quarter.
Quinn tried to drive his mates for the tying score before the half, but the drive ended inside the five yard line eighteen plays and more than seven minutes later. Carl Gioia came on to kick a short field goal to end the half at 14-10 in favor of the Bruins.
The Irish could not generate any offense after the break, and the fans began to understand that UCLA’s defense deserved much of the credit rather than Notre Dame’s sluggishness coming off a bye week. Coach Charlie Weis ordered a no huddle attack midway through the third period, and the Irish began to march downfield.
When a third down pass to Samardzija at the UCLA six yard line was negated by holding, the Irish faced a third and 23 instead of first and goal. Quinn connected on third down and again on fourth and six as Weis gambled in search of a touchdown. UCLA dug in once more, however, and Gioia was summoned once again. His 33 yarder brought Notre Dame within one point at 14-13 as the game moved into the final quarter.
Notre Dame’s defense began to assert itself, but a borderline pass interference call on Lambert helped the Bruins move into the red zone. This time it was the Irish that rose up to make a key stop, but Justin Medlock extended the UCLA lead to 17-13 with a short 3-pointer with 7:19 remaining.
An exchange of punts moved the clock past the four minute mark, and it appeared that Notre Dame would have a final shot at victory. Unfortunately for the Irish, a promising drive ended at the Bruin 35 when Quinn was stuffed on a fourth down sneak. With 2:20 left, the only remaining hope was that the defense would continue its superb second half play and hold UCLA to a three and out.
The Irish did just that, and judicious use of its remaining time outs gave the ball back to the offense with 1:02 remaining. The 80 yards of real estate seemed like a mile, but Quinn calmly went right to work without wasting a second. He hit Samardzija and David Grimes along the right sideline to move the ball to the Bruin 45, and followed with a play that will live in Irish lore for decades to come.
The thrilling final minute temporarily overshadowed another lackluster performance by the offense. Until the last minute, Weis’s passing game had been reduced to dink and dunk, while the running game never materialized. The Irish offensive line was thoroughly outplayed by UCLA’s defense, and Walker’s limitations as a runner were often in evidence.
Fortunately, the week off was extremely beneficial to Notre Dame’s defense. Aside from the two coverage breakdowns that resulted in Bruin touchdowns, the Irish flew to the ball, delivered several big hits and finished the game strong. Their performance was similar to the Georgia Tech game, and the offense again delivered just enough points to win.
John’s Top 15
1. Ohio State
4. West Virginia
6. Notre Dame
John’s Bottom Ten
3. Miami (Fla.)
4. San Diego State
6. Anyone from the MAC
8. North Carolina
10. Florida State
Dishonorable mention: Northwestern and Michigan State