KNOXVILLE, TENN., NOV. 10 -- The Notre Dame players ran through the Neyland Stadium tunnel today making the traditional "We're No. 1" signals to the crowd. They took with them a 34-29 victory and a feeling of relief.

Tennessee, 11 points down after Raghib "Rocket" Ismail sprinted 44 yards for a touchdown with 3:33 left, came achingly close to pulling out a miracle victory.

The ninth-ranked Volunteers (5-2-2) drove 68 yards in 10 plays, closing to six points on Andy Kelly's 23-yard pass to Alvin Harper. They still had 1:44 left when Carl Pickens recovered Greg Burke's high-bounce onside kickoff at the Tennessee 46.

Kelly hit three consecutive passes for a first down at the Irish 20, but cornerback Rod Smith slipped in front of Harper for an interception at the 2 and Notre Dame had maintained its No. 1 ranking.

"They ran the same hitch play they ran on their touchdown" for a 20-17 lead, Smith said. "The man came up and they want the corner to bite. But {safety} George {Poorman} anticipated it and I saw him break on the player {Harper} in the end zone. They had to throw in front of me and it was a great feeling to hold on."

"Our team played awful good, gutty, high intensity," said Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors. "People were into it. Players were crying at the end. There's no question they wanted it."

As it turned out, Notre Dame (8-1) was too quick for the Volunteers, both on the field and on the clock. Three of the four Irish touchdowns came on plays of 44 or more yards; none of their touchdown drives required more than four plays.

While Tennessee spent time watching Ismail, tailback Ricky Watters enjoyed his finest game, rushing for 174 yards and two touchdowns -- one of 66 yards -- in 17 carries.

"Coach {Lou} Holtz told me I was running herky-jerky," Watters said. "I knew I couldn't do that. In other words, don't make a move before you get to the defensive man. There were times we played well and times we sputtered today. But we felt before my last touchdown that we'd gotten a bead on what they were doing defensively."

It was Watters who sent the Irish ahead to stay early in the fourth quarter. Tennessee, leading by 23-20, tried to get off a quick punt on fourth and three at its 37 but Notre Dame, with players moving in and out, avoided a critical penalty with a quick-thinking timeout.

When the Vols did punt, it was a shanked 20-yarder, and quarterback Rick Mirer made up that yardage with one pass to fullback Rodney Culver. Then Watters took over, eating up the last 37 yards in three plays.

A clipping penalty proved costly on Tennessee's next possession and linebacker Don Grimm intercepted a desperation Kelly pass on third and 19, giving the Irish the ball at their 48. One play later, Ismail showed the 97,123 spectators why he is a Heisman Trophy candidate.

As Ismail cut to his right, he appeared to be contained by the defense. But he accelerated and left several pursuers helplessly trying to adjust as he raced 44 yards for what proved to be the winning touchdown. Until then, he had been credited with zero yards in five carries.

"He has blinding speed. He's just electric, the way he can stop and spurt," Majors said. "He broke out of our containment on that last play. That was no time to play loose there, but how can you blame anybody? And he changes your whole kicking game. We were aware of him on every play and sometimes when that happens you lose track of other people."

Mirer threw only 10 times, completing five. One was a 59-yard pass, longest of Mirer's career, to Culver for a first-quarter touchdown. Culver caught the ball at the Tennessee 35 and bounced off cornerback Mark Fletcher at the 12 before driving into the end zone.

Kelly set three Tennessee records by throwing 60 times and completing 35 for 399 yards.

The Volunteers, trailing by 10-6 at halftime, confused the Notre Dame defense in the second half by repeatedly running plays without a huddle, preventing the Irish from substituting. "We did a lot of good things on offense," Majors said. "We kept them off balance and tested them all the way. But our defense just couldn't contain them."

Tailback Tony Thompson dashed 10 yards at the finish of a 79-yard, seven-play drive to give the Volunteers a 13-10 lead. Twenty-four seconds later, Watters broke three tackles on a 66-yard sprint to put the Irish back in front, 17-13.

Tennessee drove 80 yards in nine plays, ending with Kelly hitting Harper with a 32-yard scoring pass -- the same play that failed with the game on the line.

For all their lightning drives, when the Irish tried to grind it out, they had problems. Trailing, 20-17, they used 16 plays to march from their 44 to the Tennessee 4, where Culver fumbled the ball away. Two plays earlier, on fourth and one at the 6, Craig Hentrich's field goal was good, but Tennessee cornerback Jeremy Lincoln went offside, giving the Irish a first down. Lincoln was a happy man when he fell on the ball after Darryl Hardy jarred it loose from Culver.

"That was one of the longest afternoons I can remember," said Holtz, who spent some of it on the field, twice going out to berate officials.