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Zibby’ becoming scoring threat

Mike Gilloon | Monday, November 7, 2005

Tom Zbikowski stood at the front of the interview room, donning a dapper suit that didn’t quite fit with his unshaven, nicked-up face.

“Do you ever get tired?” a reporter asked.

“I’m going to say no,” Zbikowski said. “But yeah.”

The Irish strong safety then grinned widely, the same smile he showed walking off the field Saturday as the student section roared and chanted ‘Zibby, Zibby’ in appreciation of his two touchdowns in the 41-21 Notre Dame win over Tennessee – one a 33-yard interception return and the other a 78-yard punt return.

After all that, it was probably OK to admit to a little fatigue.

The former high school quarterback from Arlington Heights, Ill. has scored four touchdowns in the last three games – two Saturday against the Volunteers, a 60-yard punt return in Notre Dame’s 34-31 loss to No. 1 Southern California on Oct. 15 and an 83-yard interception return during a 49-23 Notre Dame victory over BYU Oct. 22.

He ranks No. 5 on the team in touchdowns scored, and he’s yet to line up on the offensive side of the ball – a statistic his head coach appreciates.

“He lifted my spirits a little bit,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “I think that any time you’re not an offensive player and you’re responsible for two touchdowns, I think that’s a major factor.”

Zbikowski is establishing himself as one of the biggest factors on special teams in recent Notre Dame history.

He is the first Irish player to have multiple punt returns for a touchdown in one season since Allen Rossum took three punts back for scores in 1996.

“The more he’s out there the more you want him out there,” Weis said. “Because every time he touches the ball there’s a good chance something good is going to happen. We’re getting a lot of production out of [Zbikowksi].”

However, not all of Zbikowski’s production has come from touchdown returns. His first career sack came Saturday as well when he tracked down Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge for a 10-yard loss in the second quarter.

He also tied Irish cornerback Mike Richardson for the team lead on the day with nine tackles.

Zbikowski’s scores have also come at key moments, especially against USC and Tennessee. His second-quarter punt return against the Trojans gave Notre Dame a 21-14 advantage at halftime. Saturday’s interception return with 3:17 remaining in the game put the Irish ahead by 20 and foiled Tennessee’s attempt at a comeback.

“We’re trying to set a mark that when teams come into play at Notre Dame Stadium they’re going to come out with a loss and we’re going to come out with a win,” he said.

These results are a source of pride for Zbikowski and the Irish defense. As its highest-scoring playmaker, Zbikowski can take credit for much of the 6-2 Irish start.

“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “Everything is so much easier when you’re winning.

Getting your classwork done, going to practice, watching film, seeing the fans … just being on campus every day. It makes everything so much easier.”