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Football: Irish improve under new coach Weis

Mike Gilloon | Friday, May 19, 2006

Notre Dame ended the season with a 34-20 Fiesta Bowl defeat at the hands of Ohio State.

But first-year Irish coach Charlie Weis furthered his reputation as an offensive guru as Notre Dame broke dozens of offensive records on its way to a 9-3 season and a Fiesta Bowl berth – the program’s first BCS berth since the 2000 season.

Even so, the season highlight might not have come in the Arizona desert – where Ohio State sprinted past the Irish for the win – but in mid-October, when defending national champion and then-No. 1 Southern California faced the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium.

The campus presence of ESPN shows College Gameday and Cold Pizza, as well as a Friday night pep rally in the stadium that drew over 45,000 fans, hyped a game that lived up to immense expectations. The then-No. 9 Irish – sparked by a Tom Zbikowski-punt return touchdown and a game plan that gave Notre Dame a 17-minute time-of-possession advantage – almost upset the Trojans. But USC quarterback Matt Leinart snuck over the goal line with seconds remaining to cap an epic final quarter and give the Trojans a 34-31 win.

Notre Dame opened the season Sept. 3 with a 42-21 rout over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. Quinn set the season’s tone by tossing a pair of touchdown passes – one to running back Darius Walker and the second to junior wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, who was named a consensus All-American after making 77 receptions for 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns. Samardzija had only 24 catches – none of them for touchdowns – in his two seasons under former Irish coach Tyrone Willingham.

Weis joined Knute Rockne as the only Irish coaches to win their first two games on the road Sept. 10 when Notre Dame upset then-No. 3 Michigan in Ann Arbor. Quinn and the offense sputtered, but the defense – led by a Zbikowski interception for a touchdown and a goal-line fumble recovery from free safety Chinedum Ndukwe – held the Wolverines in check.

The Irish entered their home opener Sept. 17 ranked No. 10 in the nation. But the optimism in South Bend was temporarily halted as Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns to defeat Notre Dame 44-41 in double overtime thanks to a 19-yard, game-winning touchdown run by Jason Teague on an option pitch. The Spartan upset thwarted a 21-point comeback by the Irish as well as 487 passing yards and a then-school-record five touchdown passes by Quinn.

Notre Dame sailed through its next two contests – both on the road – defeating Washington 36-17 on Sept. 25 and Purdue 49-28 on Oct. 1.

The team then had a bye week before the matchup with USC.

Quinn avoided any possible hangover from the loss to the Trojans a week later as he threw a school-record six touchdown passes – four to senior wide receiver Maurice Stovall – as the Irish trounced BYU 49-23 on Oct. 22 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Stovall’s touchdown receptions – a Notre Dame record – helped him finish with 11 scoring grabs on the season to go along with 1,149 yards on 69 total receptions.

The season’s second bye week preceded a three-game homestand for the Irish that began with a 41-21 win over struggling Tennessee Nov. 5 as Zbikowski returned both a punt and an interception for touchdowns. The junior finished the season with four scores – two on interceptions and two on punt returns – to help earn him third-team All-America honors from the Associated Press.

The Irish then defeated Navy 42-21 on Nov. 12 and Syracuse 34-10 on Nov. 19 to enter their Nov. 25 road matchup with Stanford with an 8-2 record. Despite two touchdown receptions and 191 receiving yards from Samardzija, the star of the day was sophomore running back Darius Walker, whose six-yard touchdown run with 55 seconds remaining and subsequent two-point conversion gave the Irish a 38-31 win and catapulted them into the Fiesta Bowl. Weis fooled the Cardinal on the conversion attempt, as he called a direct snap to Walker, who trotted into the end zone.

Walker ran for a career-best 186 yards on 35 carries to help the Irish avoid an upset at the hands of a pesky Cardinal squad and ended the season with 1,196 yards on 253 carries and nine touchdowns.