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Defense makes the big play

Heather VanHoegarden | Monday, September 20, 2004

EAST LANSING, Mich. – He hovered silently, waiting for the quarterback to make the decision – pitch or run.

And when Michigan State quarterback Stephen Reaves made the toss to Jason Teague, Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski went after the back and the ball.

The next thing everyone knew No. 9 ripped the ball out of Teague’s arms and took off down the field. The former quarterback had the ball in his hands once again, putting six on the board for the Irish after his first career trifecta – the forced fumble, the recovery and the touchdown. But don’t forget, this was after he recorded his first career interception earlier in the game.

And who says Notre Dame doesn’t have a playmaker?

Zbikowski proved critics wrong with his opportunistic play against Michigan State, in his third career collegiate game.

“He’s been tremendous,” defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. “He still has a lot to learn, but I like his attitude, that he’s willing to learn, he seems to play hard.”

For the safety who was one of the most highly-touted players out of high school and redshirted as a freshman, this was the game he knew he was capable of having. He showed why he was a USA Today All-American in high school. Zbikowski did what his coaches and teammates knew he could do – make plays.

“I’m glad we got him in there,” Baer said of the redshirt freshman.

But Zbikowski was just one of many Irish who made plays on defense. Corey Mays hit Jehuu Caulcrick at the goal line to knock the ball loose for Quentin Burrell and preserve the 28-17 Irish lead. Mike Richardson, seeing significant action for the first time this season, intercepted a pass, returning it 32 yards. Derek Curry also picked one off and took that one back 35 yards.

All in all, the magic number was six – six turnovers forced by the Irish defense. It saw the hesitancies in redshirt freshman quarterback Reaves. It capitalized with three interceptions and also forced five fumbles, recovering three. The defense scored just six points themselves, but 17 points were put on the board after they got the ball back for its offense.

The defense was the key to the Irish win.

But they were almost the scapegoat.

The Irish went into the half leading 21-7, what seemed to be a comfortable lead. But the Spartans never gave up.

Spartan coach John L. Smith inserted Drew Stanton into the game after the half, and he started moving the ball. Stanton ran for 53 yards in the second half on just eight carries. He threw 12 passes, completing eight of them, good for 110 yards. All of a sudden, the Spartans were back into the game.

Down 28-17, they had the ball on the Notre Dame 1-yard line. That’s when Mays jarred the ball loose from Caulcrick, and the Irish got the ball back. But they fumbled it over to Michigan State, and the Spartans appeared to have life again with 3:39 to play in the game. That’s when Stanton was hit by none other than Zbikowski, and Kyle Budinscak recovered, clinching the game for the Irish.

Without the big plays on defense, the game becomes much more challenging for Notre Dame. The Irish defense gave up 341 total yards – 165 on the ground and 179 through the air. And that was without Stanton, who moved the offense effectively in the second half, playing the entire game.

But the Irish know they have work to do.

“We’ve just got to keep getting better,” Baer said.

But they got the job done Saturday night. They forced the turnovers when they needed to, and they scored some points of their own. This defense takes it personally.

And that’s exactly what the Irish need to do and have done since the loss to Brigham Young.

Take things personally.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Heather Van Hoegarden at hvanhoeg@nd.edu.