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Pulling no punches

Joe Meixell | Monday, November 7, 2005

After falling behind 21-3 to the Irish in the second quarter Saturday, Tennessee battled back to tie the score at 21, putting Notre Dame’s No. 8 ranking and chances at a BCS bowl berth on the line. But on third-and-10 from the Irish 25-yard line with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter, Notre Dame receiver Jeff Samardzija took quarterback Brady Quinn’s pass 73 yards to the Volunteer 2-yard line, reclaiming control of the game and thwarting the unranked Volunteers’ upset bid.

“All the momentum swung back our way on that one play,” Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis said.

Quinn hooked up with Samardzija again three plays later for a 4-yard touchdown to put the Irish up 28-21. With the drive, Notre Dame regained control of the contest and defeated Tennessee 42-21 Saturday in a game highlighted by a pair of Tom Zbikowski touchdown returns.

The victory moves the Irish to 6-2 on the season and elevated them to No. 7 in both polls.

Zbikowski sealed the victory with 3:17 left in the game when he intercepted Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge’s pass and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown.

Notre Dame extended its lead to 21-3 with 9:49 left in the first half when Zbikowski fielded a Britton Colquitt punt at the 22-yard line and returned it 78 yards for his first touchdown of the game.

“Once he gets the ball, he’s going to try to make something happen,” Irish cornerback Ambrose Wooden said of Zbikowski. “It was just amazing watching him make guys miss.”

Quinn finished the game with 295 yards through the air and three touchdowns, completing 20-of-33 passes. Samardzija caught seven passes for 127 yards and one touchdown in his eighth straight game with a touchdown reception, a Notre Dame record the junior continues to build upon.

Early in the fourth quarter, following Samardzija’s touchdown, Wooden grabbed an interception of his own and returned it 41 yards to the Tennessee 39, setting up an eventual 36-yard D.J. Fitzpatrick field goal.

Weis said he was pleased with the play of his secondary. The Irish allowed Ainge to complete just 13-of-32 passes for 187 yards.

Notre Dame jumped out to a two-touchdown lead early in the contest. After the Irish defense stopped Tennessee’s first drive at the Notre Dame 40, Colquitt pinned Notre Dame back at its own 6-yard line with a 34-yard punt. But Quinn and the Irish marched down the field, going 96 yards in 11 plays. Quinn threw for 101 yards on the drive and hit tight end Anthony Fasano for a 43-yard touchdown to give Notre Dame a 7-0 lead. The score was Fasano’s first of the season and the longest reception of his career.

On the ensuing kickoff, Irish cornerback Mike Richardson stripped the ball from Tennessee kick returner Lucas Taylor and Notre Dame’s Leo Ferrine recovered the fumble at the Tennessee 28-yard line.

It didn’t take Quinn long to find the end zone again. On third-and-18 from the 35-yard line, Quinn threw a fade pass to wide receiver Maurice Stovall, who caught the ball high in the air as he fell back into the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown catch that put the Irish up 14-0.

Weis stressed the advantage of capturing the momentum so early in the game.

“To be able to take that ball and go down and score and then be able to come and get another quick one – all the sudden it’s 14 [points] right off the bat and they had to play from behind all day,” Weis said.

Tennessee got on the board in the first quarter with its second drive.

Freshman tailback Arian Foster took an Ainge handoff 43 yards down the sideline before Irish free safety Chinedum Ndukwe and linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr. knocked him out of bounds at the Notre Dame 11-yard line. The run set up a 25-yard field goal by Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit that cut the Notre Dame advantage to 14-3.

Tennessee’s comeback began in the second quarter when the Irish made a rare mistake in the passing game.

On first-and-10 from the Notre Dame 38 with 6:39 left in the period, Quinn threw a backward pass to Samardzija that the receiver dropped. The loose ball was ruled a fumble and was recovered by Tennessee linebacker Ryan Karl.

Tennessee took advantage of the good field position. Eight plays later, on third and goal from the 7-yard line, Ainge scrambled out of the pocket and found receiver Bret Smith in the back of the end zone to cut the lead to 21-10 heading into halftime.

Tennessee’s comeback continued in the third quarter, as the Notre Dame offense could not seem to put together any long drives. With 5:06 left in the quarter, Wilhoit converted a 30-yard field goal to bring the score to 21-13.

After forcing the Irish offense into a three-and-out, Tennessee got the ball back at the Irish 45-yard line. The Volunteers drove down the field behind the strong running of Foster and a 23-yard pass from Ainge to C.J. Fayton that brought Tennessee to the 3-yard line.

On first and goal, Foster took the handoff and scampered in for a Volunteer touchdown. Ainge hooked up with Smith on the two-point conversion to even the score at 21.

“They had done a nice job to weather the storm,” Weis said. “We obviously came out hot and got on top of them early, and it didn’t deter them, didn’t distract them. They just stayed in their game plan.”