Despite anotherdramatic comeback victory, Notre Dame is still struggling to prove it deservesa spot in the BCS
WHY WAS this mansmiling? Notre Dame right guard Bob Morton was part of a line that hadsurrendered five sacks, paved the way for a measly 41 rushing yards andgenerally made UCLA defensive ends Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis look likemodern-day versions of Carl Eller and Deacon Jones. "As much as I'm notgoing to enjoy watching film tomorrow," declared the redheaded senior,"I had more fun playing this game than I've had in five years at NotreDame."
While Mortonappreciated the skill and sportsmanship of the Bruins' front four, whom hedescribed as "the classiest group I've ever played against," he wasmore appreciative of the outcome last Saturday, a 20--17 victory that theFighting Irish flat out stole from the visitors, who led 17--13 with 62 secondsleft.
Thanks to intensepressure from Hickman (three sacks) and Davis (two) and drum-tight secondaryplay, the Bruins had smothered quarterback Brady Quinn and the Notre Dameoffense for 59 minutes. Until that point, Quinn had completed two passes ofmore than 13 yards to his wide receivers.
Everything changedin the next 35 seconds. First, Quinn found senior wideout Jeff Samardzija for21 yards up the right sideline. Then he hit David Grimes, a slight sophomore,for 14 yards. Finally, from the Bruins' 45, Quinn dropped back, scanned thefield and pump-faked to buy himself an extra moment. It was just enough todiscombobulate the Bruins. He hit Samardzija in stride near the UCLA 30, andthe receiver eluded lunging linebacker Christian Taylor, cut inside free safetyDennis Keyes and danced into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Itwas Samardzija's second TD of the game and the 22nd of his career.
"No timeouts,they have to go 80 yards," muttered a disgusted Hickman after the game,"and they do it in three plays."
"Don't let allthe Notre Dame hype fool you," added Davis. "They could've been beaten.They should've been beaten."
Fair point: It'spast time to admit that Notre Dame's lofty preseason ranking—SI put the Irishat No. 2—was unreasonably high. Notre Dame, now 6--1 and ranked ninth in theBCS standings, has issues on both sides of the ball. Although seven startersreturned from last year's explosive offense, the Irish have lost much of theirquick-strike capability. "Teams want to take away the deep ball, the bigplay, take away our outside guys and force us underneath," Quinn said aftera game in which he completed 27 of 45 passes for 304 yards. "We're morethan willing to do that."
Indeed, beforethat game-winning series Notre Dame's previous two scoring drives were 19 and14 plays. The characteristics of this squad seem to be patience, composure andgrit. For the second time this season the Irish won a game they seemed assuredof losing. The win over UCLA was only slightly less dramatic than the 16-point,fourth-quarter deficit the Irish overcame against Michigan State on Sept.23.
Cornerback TerrailLambert turned his season—and possibly his college career around—in that game.Coming off a brutal performance against Michigan, which had crushed the Irishthe week before, Lambert, a junior, had a pair of critical interceptionsagainst the Spartans. "When I got here, I was afraid to put him on thefield," Irish coach Charlie Weis admitted this week. Now he is loath totake him out. Lambert had another interception last Saturday; his promotionover the erratic Ambrose Wooden was part of a minor shake-up of the defense,which took place during the bye week preceding the UCLA game.
Weis also elevatedChris Frome to starter at defensive end, in place of Ronald Talley, who leftthe team on Oct. 12. Also benched was outside linebacker Mitchell Thomas, whoseplace was taken by senior Joe Brockington. Although the reconstituted unitlooked alarmingly like its old self at times against the Bruins, yieldingfirst-half touchdown passes of 54 and 36 yards, it bore down in the secondhalf, holding UCLA to 75 total yards.
The Irish will beheavy favorites in the four games before their Nov. 25 date at USC. The winover the other team from Los Angeles drastically increases Notre Dame's chancesof playing in a BCS bowl. "You want blowouts; you want to prove a point tothe country," said strong safety Tom Zbikowski. "But no matter how itlooks, we'll take the win."
Wisconsin's P.J. Hill: Big Gains for a Hefty Back
It may not have been pretty, but Wisconsin running back P.J. Hill finished offhis day in style. With the Badgers leading Purdue 17--3 late in the fourthquarter last Saturday, the 5'11", 242 pound Weeble of a redshirt freshmanrumbled 46 yards on his final carry of the afternoon. It was an impressive runfor a player who had already toted the ball 28 times for 115 yards and twotouchdowns, often with a Boilermaker or two hanging on. So hard had he worked,it was forgivable that Hill was caught from behind, eight yards short of thegoal line. (Running back Lance Smith scored on the next play to seal the 24--3win for the 17th-ranked Badgers.) "He's not as quick as other backs,"Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle says of Hill. "He's apounder."
What else wouldyou expect from a man whose egg-shaped physique spurred his mother to nicknamehim Thunder Thighs? Eight games into his college career, Hill has developedinto one of the most punishing and durable runners in the game, and he's takenthe sting out of the loss of Brian Calhoun, who left Madison after his juniorseason and was a third-round draft pick of the Lions last spring. Hill's 1,172rushing yards are tops in the Big Ten and the most of any freshman in thecountry. And with 14 touchdowns he's the sixth-leading scorer in Division I A."P.J.'s very explosive and very physical, but he's got great feet for a bigguy," says Settle, a former NFL running back.
With 4.6 speed,Hill, a native of East Elmhurst, N.Y., who played at Brooklyn-Poly Prep, wasn'trecruited heavily. His decision to attend Wisconsin over Syracuse and Buffaloraised a few eyebrows at home, but Hill liked the Badgers' reputation forchurning out 1,000-yard rushers. He broke his left leg in August 2005,preventing him from backing up Calhoun last fall, but he fully recovered by thespring. Hill's development has been impressive, but Settle and the Wisconsinstrength coaches still want him to improve his upper-body strength. "Thisis how my body is," Hill protests. "The strength is going to come, butI don't think it's my appearance that matters. Performance is all that mattersto me."
Read more fromStewart Mandel at SI.com/collegefootball.
Third Time No Charm
GOOD NEWS for Nebraska fans: Texas doesn't return toLincoln until 2010. Since the Big 12 started play in 1996, the Longhorns havemade three trips to Memorial Stadium and left with a victory each time. LastSaturday fifth-ranked Texas recovered a Nebraska fumble with 2:17 left and won22--20 on a 22-yard field goal by sophomore walk-on Ryan Bailey (above) with 23seconds to play. The Cornhuskers' other two losses were equallygut-wrenching.
1998 Texas QB Major Applewhite converts a third-and-21during a game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. The Longhorns'20--16 victory snaps Nebraska's 47-game home winning streak.
2002 In range for a game-tying field goal, Huskers QBJammal Lord is intercepted at the Texas one with 10 seconds left. The Horns win27--24, snapping Nebraska's 26-game home winning streak.