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Football: Take two

Dan Murphy | Monday, September 11, 2006

Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn hit a wide open Rhema McKnight in the back of the end zone with seven seconds left in the second quarter to give the No. 4 Irish a 20-0 lead over No. 19 Penn State at halftime. The Irish never looked back.

Quinn led the Notre Dame attack, completing 25-of-36 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns, and the Irish added 21 points in the second half to beat the Nittany Lions 41-17.

“I want the kids to feel good about that win,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “We just beat a good football team soundly.”

Quinn was perfect on the crucial drive, completing all five of his passes for 58 yards and rushing twice for 11 more.

“That was a big drive because I am a situational guy and we have been practicing that situation for a long time,” Weis said.

The series began with a 17-yard pass to senior tight end John Carlson. Quinn completed three more passes before running out of bounds on first and goal from the 9. On second down, he found McKnight cutting across the back of the end zone.

Carlson didn’t score a touchdown Saturday but had a career game, setting highs in both catches (6) and yards (98). On Notre Dame’s opening drive, he caught a 30-yard pass over the middle, putting the offense in range for a field goal to take an early 3-0 lead. Carl Gioia, who missed two field goals in last week’s win over Georgia Tech, rebounded well and hit two 35-yard attempts.

“I said, ‘Okay, Carl, let’s go, you’re in there,'” Weis said. “I think … the sooner you can get a player out of that rut, the sooner you can break through, usually you can move past that.”

Quinn’s other main targets Saturday were running back Darius Walker and wide receiver Jeff Samardzija.

Samardzija scored the first Irish touchdown on a 7-yard catch with 3:58 left in the first half. Walker, who gained just 56 yards rushing but had 7 catches for 72 yards, closed the Irish scoring with a 15-yard scamper on a screen pass from Quinn.

The Nittany Lions had a chance to get on the board early, but a high snap on what would have been a 32-yard field goal attempt resulted in a turnover.

Fumbles cost Penn State in the second half, as well.

On the second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Irish linebackers Travis Thomas and Maurice Crum jarred the ball loose from Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli on an option play.

Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski returned the fumble 25 yards for the score and the Irish took a 27-0 lead.

“[Zbikowski] just has a nose for the ball,” Irish defensive end Victor Abiamiri said. “You can’t explain it, some guys just have a knack for finding the ball and love to have the ball in their hands.”

Penn State finally scored on its following drive, going 69 yards on 10 plays in a no-huddle offense.

The Nittany Lions moved the ball down the field with two big plays on the series – a 28-yard scramble by Morelli and a 34-yard reception by wideout Jordan Norwood.

In his second game as the Nittany Lions starter, Morelli finished 21-of-33 for 189 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Norwood led Penn State receivers with 91 yards on six catches.

But even with the two big plays, the Nittany Lions couldn’t get the ball in the end zone. Place kicker Kevin Kelly finished the effort with a 28-yard field goal with 11:29 remaining in the third quarter.

“It was a question of we didn’t do anything to finish them off,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said.

Penn State could not find an offensive rhythm until the game was well out of hand, only finding success with draw plays and screen passes against the Irish first team.

“We were able to do a little something with the screen games,” Paterno said. “I think you are going to have to these days, with all the zone blitzes and everything else.”

Weis said the screen plays Penn State used were different from those the Irish had seen in the past.

“I thought it was pretty effective on their part,” Weis said. “Really, it was like throwing a screen into pressure. There’s a nuance to that, but they hit us with a couple plays there. They had a couple good calls on us.”

Despite the limited success, the Irish controlled the tempo of the game, holding the ball for nearly 19 minutes in the first half.

That led to a long afternoon for the Penn State defense, as Notre Dame wore down the Nittany Lions linebackers and secondary with three- and four-wide sets.

“[We] got tired,” Paterno said. “Notre Dame really had been coming at a good pace the whole bit.”

The Irish kept Penn State on the field by converting all four of their fourth down attempts – including a 43-yard fake punt and a touchdown run from Thomas.

The Nittany Lions were finally able to find some success against Notre Dame’s second-string defense when they scored two touchdowns with under six minutes on the clock.

Deon Butler capped off an 18-play, 89-yard drive with a two-yard reception from Morelli for the first touchdown.

The second score came after a Penn State timeout with 20 seconds remaining in the game. Daryll Clark ran it in from the 5-yard line to bring the score to 41-17.