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Football Commentary: ‘Away-field advantage’ lifts Irish

Ken Fowler | Monday, September 25, 2006

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Charlie Weis had a choice to make – go with the wind or go with the students and the band.

He chose the Irish faithful, and he chose right.

In a driving rainstorm with winds of 15 miles per hour gusting to 30, Weis elected to kickoff into the face of the storm to start the second half, just so he could have the Notre Dame student section on top of Michigan State if the Spartans got pinned deep in their own territory.

They did, and Weis’ strategy worked.

“I figured if we were going to win the game, it was going to be in the fourth quarter, and I wanted to be in front of our fans,” he said.

Weis got his wish.

Brady Quinn’s touchdown pass to Jeff Samardzija with 8:18 left started it all – in Weis’ chosen end zone, beneath the screams and shrills of the Irish mob.

Then, with 7:10 left and Notre Dame noise permeating the air, Ndukwe’s strip of Stanton and fumble recovery deep in Michigan State territory kept alive a comeback unrivaled in recent Irish lore. The fourth quarter turnaround Weis dreamed of when he chose to play into the wind was coming true.

“You actually have to think about those things,” Weis said of the decision to go toward the band.

Weis and the Irish once again used that noise with less than five minutes left in the game after Michigan State return man Demond Williams took a knee on the kickoff that followed Brady Quinn’s touchdown pass to Rhema McKnight.

The Spartans ran onto the field to start from their own 12-yard line. They were met with an “Imperial March” and an Irish awakening.

In the press box, all the way across the stadium and eight levels high behind a sheet of glass, the Notre Dame band drowned out the Michigan State woodwinds that played 100 yards closer. In fact, they did that throughout the fourth quarter.

“That’s not a loud stadium,” Weis said. “And we didn’t have that many fans there, but the ones we did were making some noise.”

Before Drew Stanton could get into the huddle, Tom Zbikowski was jumping up and down, pointing at the band and students in the northeast corner of the stadium.

“We had a lot of fans down here … and we didn’t want them to leave with a loss,” Zbikowski said.

So to help the cause, the senior safety started begging for away-field advantage in East Lansing.

He got it.

Arms in unison, the band began with its trademark Star Wars song, and Chinedum Ndukwe laid a crucial hit seven yards downfield on Javon Ringer that brought second-and-three.

Then it was Travis Thomas screaming at the Notre Dame defensive linemen and then raising his hands towards that northeast corner and the Irish band in the middle of the Celtic Chant.

“We were just trying to get everybody into it and keep the intensity up, and it paid off,” Thomas said. “That emotion kind of makes you catch your second wind. Football is a game of emotions, and when you play flat, I don’t think you play well. … With the crowd getting into it, what people we had here, it really helped out a lot.”

Weis testified to Thomas’ comment that Notre Dame needed the second wind late in the fourth. After the defense spent nearly nine of the first 12 minutes of the final quarter on the field, Weis said, they were close to wearing down.

“On the way home, I can tell you there was a lot of sleeping going on,” Weis said. “It wasn’t like there was a raucous bus. … I think everyone left it on the field yesterday.”

Thomas said whatever he had left was at least buoyed by the positives of the offense clicking and the students roaring in the stands.

He took that extra energy and stuffed Stanton at the line to force third-and-three.

Then Notre Dame’s defense went back to the well that refreshed them twice before. As Michigan State ran to the line, Zbikowski, Thomas and cornerback Mike Richardson screamed at each other with arms raised to pump up the Irish crowd already engulfed in another “Imperial March.”

By the time the play was over, the Irish defense had given the crowd a whole lot more to cheer about as cornerback Terrail Lambert intercepted an errant Stanton pass and brought it back 26 yards to give his team the lead.

Without the Notre Dame band and students, the Irish likely wouldn’t have come back from a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter, propelled by three forced turnovers.

As ABC cut to Weis before his post-game television interview, he yelled to someone, “Get them over by the band.”

He had good reason.

And now, Athletic Director Kevin White has good reason to visit with Notre Dame Director of Bands Kenneth Dye so the two can figure out how to get the band to some more away games.

They’d certainly have Weis’ support.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Ken Fowler at [email protected]

“Now, on the way home, I can tell you there was a lot of sleeping going on. It wasn’t like there was a raucous bus. I think there was a lot of tired puppies. I think everyone left it on the field yesterday.”

“. I was trying to get back into the corner, the end zone, with our players, our fans, our band.”

“There were a lot of spent people in that locker room. Especially those guys up front, I can talk about Terrail’s two interceptions which definitely is worth noting. Mike Richardson has a bunch of big plays in the game. Ndu strips the fumble. Those front four guys, that nickel defense, those four guys played most of the night, which were Victor, Trevor, Derek and Chris Frome, those four guys are the men who got most of the reps in the night, this he played tough all night long, despite the fact they ran the ball pretty well against us.”

“It’s funny cause we talked about how the defense really feeds off of something positive about the offense. And I tried to explain to the offense that, ‘ hey the defense goes three and out and you go in and don’t do anything, they lose some of that energy’. I thought that that got going and I strategically had picked in the second half going towards our students in the fourth quarter. In the third quarter that’s the reason I defended the near end, kicking the other way, cause I figured if we were going to win the game it was going to be in the fourth quarter and I wanted to be in front of our fans in the fourth quarter and fortunately it worked out that way. See you actually have to think about those things.”