by John Vannie
Notre Dame played solid football in all facets of the game on Saturday to outclass Penn State 41-17 in the home opener. The rejuvenated Irish defense turned in another fine performance, but this time the offense and its recently-maligned quarterback did its part to dismantle the Nittany Lions. Not to be outdone, Notre Dame’s special teams joined the party with outstanding play from Travis Thomas, Carl Gioia, Geoff Price and both coverage teams.
The Irish were a bit sluggish at the start, but Brady Quinn flashed his 2005 form with crisp passes to tight end John Carlson, who enjoyed a career best afternoon. A holding penalty derailed yet another promising drive, however, but Gioia converted for an early 3-0 lead.
Penn State tried to answer behind the running of Tony Hunt, but the drive stalled and a botched snap foiled kicker Kevin Kelly’s chance to tie. The Lions began to move again on their next possession, but Hunt coughed up the ball when Tom Zbikowski drilled him near midfield as the first quarter drew to a close. Ronald Talley recovered for Notre Dame.
Quinn moved the team to the Penn State 12 behind a well executed fourth down draw play, but the Lions stiffened. After a near interception on third down, Gioia came on and booted a 35-yarder for a 6-0 lead. At this point in the game, the lead did not feel particularly comfortable as Penn State seemed to be in control of the line of scrimmage.
Zbikowski almost handed the Lions a scoring opportunity when he fumbled a punt on the next series after stubbornly refusing to call for a fair catch. Raeshon MacNeil bailed out the Irish by pouncing on the ball just when Penn State appeared poised to recover.
Quinn took advantage by connecting with Jeff Samardzija and Carlson for 26 and 32 yards, respectively, as the Irish started to crank it up. The capper was a 7-yard strike from Quinn to Samardzija for a 13-0 advantage with four minutes left in the half.
Once again, a promising drive by Penn State unraveled. Anthony Morelli found Hunt on a well-conceived screen pass, but a clipping penalty killed the visitors’ momentum. Victor Abiamiri sacked Morelli two plays later and the Lions punted the ball away with 1:30 left.
Starting at the Irish 32, Quinn and Coach Charlie Weis were not about to sit on their lead. Mid-range passes to Carlson and Rhema McKnight moved the ball into the red zone, and Quinn’s scramble took it to the Penn State nine with 12 seconds left. As was the case last week against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame was out of time outs but determined to score a touchdown. Quinn relied on his arm this time, hitting McKnight in the back of the end zone for a 20-0 halftime lead.
Morelli and the Lions took the second half kickoff and immediately imploded. A third down play went awry and Morelli found himself trapped in the backfield. Maurice Crum jarred the ball loose and it bounced into the hands of Zbikowski, who cruised 25 yards for a commanding 27-0 lead before most fans had returned from the concession stand.
The Lions defense stepped up the pressure on Quinn during the next series and recorded consecutive sacks. Price boomed the Irish out of trouble with a 62-yard punt and the Penn State offense went back to work. On the next play from scrimmage, Morelli uncorked a rainbow toward Derrick Williams, but Irish safety Chinedum Ndukwe easily stepped in and picked it off at the Notre Dame 45.
The Irish were unable to convert a third down pass, however, and Price came onto the field to punt it away. The snap went instead to Travis Thomas, who darted through a huge hole and was off to the races until he was cut down at the Lion’s four. Penn State dug in for what seemed to be its last stand, and Weis was presented with a fourth down at the one after three plays did not produce a score.
Once again, Weis made the right move by sending in Travis Thomas for the smaller Darius Walker. Thomas took a pitch left and stretched out over the pylon after a bone-jarring collision with a defender at the goal line. Notre Dame stretched its lead to 34-3 with four minutes to go in the third quarter and the pushups began to take a toll on the Irish student body.
The only remaining question was whether Notre Dame could keep the Lions out of the end zone. Morelli hit a couple of passes on the next series to move into Irish territory, but Ndukwe snuffed out a trick play by Penn State, in the form of a direct snap to Williams, and sacked him for a 14 yard loss. The Lions could not recover and Morelli’s fourth down pass fell harmlessly to the turf.
The final quarter opened with a curtain call for the Irish offense. Aided by the short field, Quinn capped off a stellar day by hitting Darius Walker on a textbook screen pass for a 41-3 lead with twelve minutes left in the game. Walker was wide open in the right flat and went untouched for the 15 yard score.
At this point, Weis called off the dogs and the Irish third string defense rewarded the determined Lions with a couple of garbage time scores. The damage had been done, though, and Penn State was obviously dismayed at its own miscues and with the way Notre Dame controlled the ball with long marches against its proud defense.
Lion Coach Joe Paterno summed up the day by saying, “I think they outplayed us. We made too many mistakes. We were sloppy.” Linebacker Paul Posluzsny added, “We expected them to keep going deep, but they just cleaned us all out and went underneath.”
Although the schedule remains unforgiving and Notre Dame will face a tough Michigan team at home next weekend, the team’s confidence has been restored. Gioia, Carlson, Ryan Harris and Quinn all made significant improvement over last week’s performances, and the defense continued to gain the respect of its erstwhile doubters.
It’s still too early for a Top 25 poll, but it is clear that the Irish are legitimate contenders. Whether they can survive September and remain among the elite is still unknown, but Notre Dame fans have to like their chances.