Nov. 5, 2005
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – Notre Dame found a way to win again. Tennessee found a way to lose again.
It’s been the story of the season for the two teams as the Irish continue to look like they’re getting closer to being an elite team and the Volunteers continue to look increasingly mediocre.
The Volunteers looked as though they might be able to rally for a victory Saturday after coming back from 18 points down to tie the score at 21. But Brady Quinn completed a 73-yard pass to Jeff Samardzija to set up the go-ahead touchdown and spark the eighth-ranked Irish to a 41-21 victory Saturday.
“All the momentum swung back our way on that one play,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said.
It was a short pass to the left, but Samardzija eluded a couple of tacklers and raced down the sideline before being caught from behind by Antwan Stewart at the 2-yard line.
“I was looking back trying to give a stiff arm, when I really didn’t need to,” Samardzija said. “(Maurice) Stovall put on a great block for me up on the 50 and it just kind of opened up the whole seam for me down the sideline.”
Samardzija capped the drive with 4-yard TD catch for Quinn’s third TD pass of the game.
Quinn was 20-of-33 for 295 yards and threw two touchdown passes in the span of a minute to give the Irish (6-2) a 14-0 lead. The Vols managed to slow him until late in the third quarter, when Quinn finished the game by completing 5-of-8 passes for 93 yards, setting up the go-ahead TD and a pair of field goals by D.J. Fitzpatrick.
“We had some time in the game when we were unproductive, but we challenged ourselves to see how productive we could be against this defense,” Quinn said.
Samardzija’s TD catch was his 12th of the season, breaking the mark of 11 set by Derrick Mayes in 1994.
Tom Zbikowski iced the victory with an interception 33 yards for a touchdown. He also had a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter. The two returns for touchdowns give Zbikowski four TDs in three games. He also had a 60-yard punt return against USC and an 83-yard interception return against Brigham Young.
“I’m trying to catch up with Jeff as much as I can,” Zbikowski said.
Weis was pleased to see his defense and special teams contribute, even if it was Zbikowski on both plays.
“He lifted my spirits a little bit,” Weis said. “Any time you’re not an offensive player and you’re responsible for two touchdowns, I think that’s a major factor in the game.”
Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who helped called the offensive plays, said it was another disappointing loss.
Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis smiles after his team scored on a 78-yard punt return. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
“When we got it back to 21-21, I thought we had us a football game. Obviously, their kicking game and the turnovers at the end, I don’t think truly reflected what the score was. I thought our defense played well enough to win the game, we made progress in some areas on the offensive side, at times. We have just continued to be our own worst enemies at times.”
The victory made Notre Dame bowl eligible in consecutive years for the first time since 1997-98, Bob Davie’s first two years as coach. If the Irish can win their final three games against Navy, Syracuse and Stanford, they could be eligible for a BCS berth for the first time since 2000.
“We’ve got to keep taking it one week at a time,” Zbikowski said.
The Volunteers lost their fourth straight for the first time since 1988, which also is the last time they failed to go to a bowl game. The Vols must win their last three against Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to become bowl eligible.
Linebacker Kevin Simon still finds it hard to believe.
“If you would have told us at the beginning of the season, I would have told you you’re crazy. No way,” he said. “But that’s where we’re at. We’re 3-5 and fighting to get bowl eligible.”
The 41 points were the most allowed this season by Tennessee, which gave up 27 points at LSU and against Georgia. The three TD passes surrendered by the Volunteers also equaled the amount they gave up in their first seven games combined.
Vols linebacker Kevin Simon said he doesn’t think the Irish offense was the best Tennessee has said.
“They have more playmakers than anyone we’ve played,” he said. “Samardzija is probably the best receiver we’ve played all year. They have more star power and a good coach to boot.”