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Sunday, October 07, 2007


posted by John Vannie
Maurice Crum led a hard-hitting Notre Dame defense that created seven turnovers in a 20-6 victory over the UCLA Bruins in the Rose Bowl. The Irish offense had a difficult time moving the ball against the fast and talented Bruins, but Crum and his mates knocked out starting quarterback Ben Olson and pressured his replacement into numerous mistakes. The win is the first for Notre Dame this season, but the overall improvement of this team is unmistakable.

After a frustrating offensive performance in the first half for both teams, the Irish defense took matters into its own hands. Of UCLA’s eight second half possessions, four were ended by interception, two by fumble, one with a punt and another on a fourth down sack by Crum. This play occurred in the third quarter with the Bruins ahead by 6-3, and Notre Dame drove into scoring position where Brandon Walker converted a personal best 48-yard field goal.

For the first time this season, the Irish were tied in the second half of a ballgame. Crum then forced a fumble by Kahlil Bell, but the Irish could not immediately capitalize. Punter Geoff Price pinned the Bruins on their own one yard line, however, and moments later David Bruton intercepted a pass by McLeod Bethel-Thompson. A face mask penalty on the return moved the ball to the UCLA two, and Jimmy Clausen scored on a quarterback sneak three plays later for a 13-6 Irish lead.

The score started a feeding frenzy for a Notre Dame team that was nothing short of desperate for a win. Crum continued his heroics on the ensuing series by stripping the ball from Bethel-Thompson during a sack and running it into the end zone from 34 yards out as the third quarter wound down.

Leading 20-6, the Irish continued to terrorize Bethel-Thompson as he turned to the air in hopes of generating a fourth quarter comeback. Crum intercepted a pass to stop one Bruin drive, and UCLA’s best scoring opportunity was repelled moments later when Terrail Lambert picked off a fourth down pass at the goal line. Crum added an exclamation point to his remarkable performance during the final minutes with yet another interception. He appeared to have a clear path to the end zone behind a convoy of blockers, but he tripped over one of them and stumbled to the turf at the Bruin 29.

Notre Dame ran out the clock and elated Irish fans in both end zones celebrated with the players for several minutes before the team retired to the locker room. It was an uplifting moment for the program, and one can not help but believe that this game will be remembered as a turning point for Notre Dame’s promising young players and as a form of validation for its veterans.

The victory overshadowed an ineffective performance by the Irish offense, although the Bruin defense was exceptionally good. Notre Dame could not sustain its blocks on stretch plays in the running game, and UCLA blanketed Golden Tate and the Irish receivers downfield.

Fortunately, Tom Zbikowski took care of UCLA’s offense late in the first quarter by sacking Olson, who injured his knee and fumbled in the process. Kerry Neal picked up the ball and returned it inside the Bruin one yard line. Coach Charlie Weis inexplicably called a pass play, which predictably resulted in a sack. A drop by John Carlson and another incompletion caused Notre Dame to settle for a game-tying field goal.

As much as Notre Dame fans detested the first down call by Weis, I can guarantee you that his players liked it even less. If Weis continues to insist on demonstrating his play-calling brilliance in these situations, he may soon be selling used Winnebagos in Elkhart.

UCLA’s swarming defense may have contributed to the fact that Weis called a few bonehead plays in search of something that might work. He was actually outdone in this area by Bruin coach Karl Dorrell, who continued to call pass plays in short yardage third and fourth down situations despite the fact that his running game was working quite well.

The Irish can build on an outstanding performance by Crum and a defense that has played extremely well since the second half of the Purdue game. The offense and special teams did enough good things to secure the win, and that is what matters most. Fans will not forget that the team has a long road to travel before winning becomes an expectation again rather than a novelty, but the road suddenly does not look quite as distant.

A review of the key questions that determine the outcome:

- Will UCLA be able to strike for long scoring plays? Definitely not. The lone exception was called back by holding and Crum intercepted on the next play.

- Will the Irish be able to mix in the run more effectively than they did at Purdue? It was tough going against the UCLA defense, but the Irish stuck to the ground with the lead in the second half and did enough to win.

- Will Olson be able to rely on the ground game and throw only 25 passes instead of 40? Dorrell was his own worst enemy, and the Bruins threw 38 times as a result of their 20-6 deficit.

- Will Notre Dame’s special teams finally make a positive contribution? Bruton was exceptional in coverage, Armando Allen had one nice kickoff return and Walker’s second field goal provided a boost to his teammates.

- Is Jimmy Clausen healthy enough to throw the ball with authority? Yes, although the Bruins did not give him much to aim at.

- Can the Irish protect the quarterback against Davis and company? Davis beat Irish blockers for three sacks, but there were no fundamental breakdowns in protection by Notre Dame.

- Which Irish team that played against Purdue will show up in Pasadena? Defensively, the team that played Purdue tough in the second half showed up in Pasadena. The offense struggled all evening but did not turn the ball over.
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