Sept. 8, 2006
Well it’s finally here. The game Notre Dame fans have been waiting for since last January. The Irish open the 2006 home schedule this afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium with a clash of two of college football’s heavyweight programs – Notre Dame and Penn State.
It’s been a long time since these two storied programs last met – November 14, 1992 – to be exact in one of those games that lives on in Irish football lore – “The Snow Bowl.”
Who can forget that last meeting? Played in temperatures in the low 30’s with snow showers throughout the game that left the field covered in snow, Notre Dame trailed 16-9 with 4:25 left on the clock. Irish quarterback Rick Mirer guided Notre Dame on a 12-play, 64-yard drive that culminated with a three-yard touchdown pass to Jerome Bettis, cutting the Nittany Lions’ lead to 16-15 with 20 seconds left. Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz went for the win, going for a two-point conversion and Mirer delivered. First he scrambled away from pressure toward the right sideline and found Reggie Brooks in the back right corner of the snow-covered end zone for the two-point conversion to give the Irish a 17-16 victory.
We move ahead 14 years and once again the two teams meet on the gridiron ranked among the nation’s top teams. Notre Dame, fresh off its 14-10 opening night win at Georgia Tech last Saturday, opened the season ranked second in the AP poll and tied for third in the USA Today poll. Penn State also brings a 1-0 mark into the game after downing Akron, 34-16, in the rain a week ago at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions are ranked 19th in both polls.
This is the 18th meeting between the two schools with the series dead even at 8-8-1. From 1981 to 1992, the two teams met every season with the Lions winning eight of the 12 games. In 10 of the 12 meetings, at least one of the teams was nationally ranked. Four times, one of the two teams was ranked number one in the country and five times both teams were ranked, making for some great games.
So much for the past. That brings us to today’s game. Leading the way for both teams are a pair of coaches with tremendous reputations. Notre Dame fans know all about Charlie Weis and what he has done in just 13 games guiding the fortunes of the Irish. In his second season, he is 10-3 with one trip to a BCS Bowl game on his resume. An offensive wizard, Weis has turned things around in South Bend after earning four Super Bowl rings in 15 seasons as an NFL assistant coach with the New York Giants, Jets and New England Patriots.
Across the field on the Penn State sideline is a coaching legend – Joe Paterno. The veteran coach is in his 56th season at Penn State, 15 seasons as an assistant to Rip Engle and the head coach of the Nittany Lions for the last 41 campaigns. With Penn State’s opening-night win versus Akron, Paterno is now 355-117-3 (.751) all-time and is second in wins among major college football coaches and fourth all-time. His teams have won two national championships (1982 and 1986) and he’s coached in the most bowl games (32) with the most wins (21).
A Look At The Irish
Notre Dame opened the season with a 14-10 road win at Georgia Tech last Saturday night. Trailing 10-0 with time running out in the first half, the Irish offense grinded out a 14-play, 80-yard drive with Heisman Trophy candidate Brady Quinn carrying the last five yards on a daring quarterback draw with 11 seconds left to cut the lead to 10-7 at the half.
Another long drive (14 plays, 64 yards), midway through the third quarter capped by Darius Walker’s 13-yard run, put the Irish ahead to stay at 14-10. Notre Dame’s defense took over from there, limiting Georgia Tech to 52 yards of total offense over a quarter-and-a-half to seal the win.
Legendary football programs renew series after 14-year hiatus.
Walker finished the game with 99 yards in 22 carries and caught four passes out of the backfield for 18 yards in what would have to be called a successful homecoming for the Lawrenceville, Ga., native. Quinn was 23-for-38 for 246 yards through the air and scored one touchdown. Rhema McKnight returned to the Irish lineup to make eight catches for 108 yards and Jeff Samardzija snared six for 74 yards. Tight ends John Carlson (4) and Marcus Freeman (1) combined for five catches in the game.
Defensively, the Irish held Georgia Tech to 259 yards in total offense (119 on the ground and 140 through the air) with 173 of it coming in the first half. Senior safety Tom Zbikowski led the Irish with eight tackles and was followed by junior linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr., with six tackles, including Notre Dame’s lone sack of the game. Senior Travis Thomas, making his first appearance at weak side linebacker, had four tackles, two for losses and also saw late duty at running back where he has played the first three seasons at Notre Dame.
The Nittany Lions
Penn State not only had to battle the Akron Zips in its season opening win, but also faced the remnants of Tropical Storm Ernesto that soaked Happy Valley last weekend. Still, the Nittany Lions were able to prevail with a 34-16 win. The game marked the first collegiate start for junior quarterback Anthony Morelli who threw for three touchdowns while completing 16 of 32 passes for 206 yards on the day. Morelli led Penn State on scoring drives on its first three possessions on the way to a 17-3 halftime lead.
The Nittany Lions were held to just 76 yards rushing and wind-and-rain swept Beaver Stadium with Tony Hunt leading the running game with 14 carries and 36 yards. Freshman receiver A.J. Wallace picked up 42 yards on a reverse in his only carry of the game.
Jordan Norwood was on the receiving end of seven Morelli passes, good for 61 yards and one touchdown. Derrick Williams had three catches for 49 yards and a TD and Deon Butler caught two for 50 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown catch.
On the defensive side of the ball, Penn State, led by its four-man linebacking corps, held the Zips to just 225 yards total offense (34 on the ground, 191 through the air). Defensively, Penn State held Akron’s offense to just 225 yards, including 34 on the ground. The quartet of Dan Connor (13), All-American Paul Posluszny (7), Sean Lee (6) and Tim Shaw (2) had a hand in 28 tackles, including four sacks and seven for losses. The Penn State secondary had a pair of interceptions in shutting down the Akron attack.
A total of nine freshmen saw their first collegiate action last weekend at Georgia Tech. Leading the way was freshman offensive tackle Sam Young who became the first-ever Notre Dame rookie offensive lineman to start a season opener since freshmen became eligible in 1972. He also is the fourth freshman to start on the Irish offensive line at any point, joining an elite group that includes teammate Ryan Harris (final eight games of 2003), Brad Williams (vs. Navy and Boston College in 1996) and Mike Rosenthal (vs. Ohio State, USC and Air Force in 1995).
Joining Young to see action as a freshman in their first game were Sergio Brown, Jashaad Gaines, Richard Jackson, Raeshon McNeil, Munir Prince, Morrice Richardson, Darrin Walls and George West. Sophomore DB Kyle McCarthy also saw his first college action as a member of the Irish kick return unit.
Senior wide receiver Rhema McKnight made his presence felt a week ago in Atlanta, Ga., leading the Irish with eight catches for 108 yards. The fifth-year receiver, who was Notre Dame’s top pass catcher in ’03 and ’04, played in just two games last season, going down with a season-ending knee injury during the Michigan game (Sept. 10, 2005). His eight receptions tied a career high (fourth time) and he now has 111 for his career to rank him eighth on the all-time reception list.