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Football: Finally

Chris Khorey | Monday, October 8, 2007

LOS ANGELES – Notre Dame’s offense sputtered and stalled, but the Irish defense picked up the slack – and then some – as the Irish earned their first win of the season Saturday night, 20-6 over UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

“I was hurting the first

‘ five games, but I could get used to this feeling,” fifth-year senior defensive end Trevor Laws said.

After a raucous celebration with the more than 20,000 Notre Dame fans in attendance, the Irish bounced, danced and high-fived their way back to their locker room, where senior linebacker Maurice Crum led them in singing the “Victory March.”

“It feels really good,” head coach Charlie Weis said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to sing that fight song in the locker room.”

Notre Dame (1-5) gained just 140 yards on offense, but it didn’t matter. The Irish forced seven turnovers, had five sacks, scored a defensive touchdown and knocked Bruin starting quarterback Ben Olson out of the game in the first quarter because of a knee injury.

Late in the first quarter, Olson dropped back to pass and was leveled by Notre Dame fifth-year senior safety Tom Zbikowski. Zbikowski jarred the ball loose, and freshman linebacker Kerry Neal fell on it at the Bruin 1-yard line.

The Irish offense couldn’t get the ball over the goal line and had to settle for a field goal, but meanwhile Olson was on the sideline being treated for a sprained knee. He would not return and was replaced by redshirt freshman McLeod Bethel-Thompson.

“I don’t how he got hurt, but I hit him first, and then Trevor [Laws] came in and we caused that fumble and we recovered it,” Zbikowski said.

Bethel-Thompson finished the game 12-for-28 passing for 139 yards – and threw four interceptions, one of which set up the Irish for their first second-half lead of the season.

With the score tied at six late in the third quarter, a punt by Irish fifth-year senior Geoff Price pinned the Bruins at their own 1-yard line. On third down from the three, Bethel-Thompson badly overthrew a pass, which was intercepted by Notre Dame junior safety David Bruton and returned to the 4-yard line.

“It sailed over his intended receiver because our front line got good pressure,” Bruton said. “I tried to take it to the house, but I guess I got caught from behind by a receiver.”

A facemask penalty on the return advanced the ball to the two, and three plays later, freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen snuck over the line to put his team up 13-6 with 1:53 left in the third quarter.

“That was the time when our players believed they were going to win the game,” Weis said.

But the Irish defense wasn’t done. Less than a minute later, on the next UCLA possession, Notre Dame linebackers Crum and sophomore John Ryan sandwiched Bethel-Thompson, who lost the ball. Crum picked it up and returned it 35 yards for another Notre Dame touchdown to give the Irish a 20-6 lead.

The turnover was one of four Crum caused Saturday. He forced another fumble, this time by Bruin running back Kahlil Bell, and intercepted Bethel-Thompson twice – the second one coming on the Bruin’s last possession to seal the victory for the Irish.

“A lot of my determination came from [the 33-19 loss to Purdue] last week,” Crum said. “I didn’t feel like I played well and I think my team needed me tonight.”

After that interception, Crum looked unimpeded to the endzone for his second touchdown of the day, but his feet got tangled with those of fifth-year senior cornerback Ambrose Wooden and he slipped and fell.

“He looked like me out there,” Weis said of the play.

UCLA opened the scoring. After pinning the Irish deep and forcing a punt, the Bruins drove 52 yards in 14 plays, but Notre Dame held inside its own 10 and forced a field goal by Bruin kicker Kai Forbath.

Notre Dame tied the game two possessions later after Zbikowski’s hit and forced Olson to fumble.

On first and goal from the one, Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen was sacked. Three plays later, the Irish had to settle for a field goal by freshman Brandon Walker to even the game at 3-3.

The two teams exchanged punts for most of the second quarter. UCLA finally broke the deadlock, driving 40 yards in 9 plays and getting a 49-yard field goal from Forbath with 32 seconds left in the first half to take a 6-3 lead into the locker room.

The Bruins opened the second half by advancing into Notre Dame territory, but they were stopped on fourth-and-one at the Irish 32 when Crum sacked Bethel-Thompson.

Notre Dame took the ball and went right back the other way, driving 29 yards in 12 plays. Walker nailed a career-long 48-yard field goal to even the score at six. The Irish had advanced as far as the UCLA 22, but successive false start and personal foul penalties pushed them back and forced the field goal try.

“We got just enough yards on third and long to get into field goal range,” Weis said. “That was a great kick.”

Crum forced the fumble by Bell on the next Bruin possession, but even though Notre Dame took over on the UCLA 32, it could not get any points. Clausen was sacked on the first play of the Irish drive – and the cheering in the Rose Bowl doubled in volume after the loudspeaker announcement that, across town, USC had just lost to Stanford 24-23.

The ensuing Price punt pinned the Bruins near their own goal line, and three plays later, Bruton’s interception set up Clausen’s plunge to give Notre Dame the lead.

UCLA had one last chance to get back in the game, advancing the ball to the Irish 9-yard line, but on fourth-and-goal, Irish senior cornerback Terrail Lambert intercepted Bethel-Thompson’s pass in the end zone.

Clausen finished the game 17-for-27 passing for 84 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. Olson was 4-for-10 for 54 yards before leaving the game with the knee injury.

Notre Dame returns home to face No. 4 Boston College next week. The Bruins, who fell to 4-2 with the loss, take on No. 2 California at the Rose Bowl.