The Pluck of the Irish Returns

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006

Through 15 games as Notre Dame's coach, both Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis had the same 11-4 record and had just been beaten soundly by Michigan. Both encountered Michigan State in their 16th game, but that's where the similarities end.

Willingham's team lost and questions concerning his job security followed within weeks. By contrast, Weis's Fighting Irish authored a season-saving comeback Saturday night that promises to linger in memories for years to come.

"I think the players were starting to realize at halftime that the season was falling into their hands," Weis said after the 17-point rally. "After the game they played last week, and then we are down big at halftime, it was like, 'Well, fellas, what's it going to be?' "

The 40-37 victory put Notre Dame in position to play in a BCS game for the second consecutive season and kept the Fighting Irish's slim national title hopes alive. While it was not reminiscent of the 1966 "Game of the Century" between the schools, Saturday night also provided glimpses of vintage characteristics of both programs.

For Notre Dame, it was another fourth-quarter rally by a future NFL quarterback. Brady Quinn orchestrated the largest fourth-quarter comeback (16 points) since Joe Montana engineered a 22-point comeback in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. For Michigan State, it was further evidence of a program that has the capacity to wow fans one half and quickly deflate them the next.

The Spartans led 31-14 with the wind howling and the rain making it difficult for Quinn to secure the ball. But Michigan State's offense became conservative late, and Coach John L. Smith acknowledged that his offense probably should have continued to throw, especially after the rain subsided. But tentativeness was apparent in other places as well.

After Notre Dame closed to within four points, Michigan State's Demond Williams caught the kickoff at his 6 yard line, only to run to the 12 and take a knee. Three plays later, Notre Dame cornerback Terrail Lambert intercepted Drew Stanton's pass and raced 27 yards to the end zone for the game-winning score.

"I thought maybe a big play in the game was when their kickoff guy declared himself down at the 10- or 11-yard line," Weis said. "Really, that gave us a chance to pin them back there, and we ended up getting the turnover to take the lead."

It's too early to determine whether Saturday was a turning point for Notre Dame, which has looked strong in only one of its four games, a blowout victory against Penn State.

The defense was expected to be vulnerable with nine starters back from the group that allowed 617 yards to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. But other issues, including penalties and turnovers, are perplexing Notre Dame faithful more.

With a veteran offensive line and an experienced running back in Darius Walker, Notre Dame ranks 108th in rushing. And although he finished brilliantly Saturday night, magazine cover boy Quinn has four interceptions and a fumble the past two weeks against the Michigan schools.

As unpredictable as Notre Dame has performed from game to game, or even from half to half, little suggests it will be in danger of losing again until a Nov. 25 matchup at Southern California. Over the next seven games, Notre Dame will play three service academies, a winless Stanford team and an undefeated Purdue team that has only beaten one school (Minnesota) from a BCS conference.

The other two opponents: UCLA (2-1) and North Carolina (1-3). What's more, the Fighting Irish only play one true road game, at Air Force, before USC.

"As low as they were last week at this time, that's how high they are right now," Weis said of his players. "We have to make sure we don't get on an emotional roller coaster. . . . Right now, it's a pretty high high."

Undefeated, but Hurting

Of the 19 remaining undefeated schools, Wake Forest (4-0) perhaps is the most surprising because the Demon Deacons continue to win despite losing key offensive players to injury.

First it was starting quarterback Ben Mauk who was lost for the season in the opener against Syracuse with a broken right arm and dislocated right shoulder.

Then tailback Micah Andrews, the team's leader in rushing and all-purpose yards, was sidelined after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the Sept. 16 victory against Connecticut. In the same game starting left tackle Arby Jones tore a medial collateral ligament, which could keep him out six weeks.

Despite the losses, Wake Forest has established itself as the best Division I-A program in North Carolina. The other four I-A schools, North Carolina State, North Carolina, East Carolina and Duke, have a combined record of 4-11. . . .

Off to its first 4-0 start in more than two decades, Rutgers has reached another milestone: its first national top 25 ranking since 1976. The Scarlet Knights entered this week's poll at No. 23.

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