Samardzija's 12th touchdown grab of the year, a new single season record, two plays into the fourth quarter gave the Irish the lead for good and Zbikowski sealed the deal with his second touchdown return of the day as No. 8 Notre Dame held off Tennessee 41-21. A 20-0 final quarter margin pleased a sellout crown at Notre Dame Stadium and pushed the Irish to 6-2 on the year heading into next week's match up against Navy. Head coach Charlie Weis was happy to have Zbikowski, a starting safety, be the main offensive threat on Saturday.
"He lifted my spirits a little bit unless that was him that got called for that personal foul," Weis said. "He tried to politic and say it wasn't him. But other than that, when you have a big return for a touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown like he did, anytime you're not an offensive player and you are responsible for two touchdowns, I think that's a major factor in the game.
"The more he's out there, the more you want him out there because every time he touches the ball, something good is going to happen."
Samardzija's score broke the record previously held by Derrick Mayes set in 1994. The 6-5 junior finished the day with seven grabs for 127 yards. A 73-yard catch on 3rd-and-10 by Samardzija set up his own eventual winning score three plays later. He's just pleased that Weis has been calling his number early and often this season.
"It just means that I'm making plays out there when called upon," Samardzija said. "Coach Weis is going to go out and put us in situations that he feels is going to help us win. When I get the chance to go out there and make a play, I try not to let it slip away. A couple of times there in the first half, I let some slants get away from me. I wasn't making plays in the first half."
Volunteer head coach Phil Fulmer saw his team battle back valiantly but once again come up short. Tennessee is now 3-5 on the year and has to win out to salvage a winning season. For a team that was ranked 3rd in the pre-season poll, the year keeps getting worse.
"First of all, I'd like to congratulate Coach Weis and the Notre Dame football team," Fulmer said. "They did a heck of a job this evening. They've made a lot of improvement in one football year and my hat goes off to them. I thought our team battled. When we got it back to 21-21, I thought we had us a football game. Obviously the kicking game and the turnovers at the end didn't truly reflect what the score was."
Notre Dame built a big early lead in part because of some great individual efforts. Anthony Fasano took a crossing pattern and rumbled down the right sideline for a 43-yard touchdown to give the Irish a 7-0. On the play, Fasano got a clutch down the field block from Maurice Stovall, springing the tight end into the end zone.
Stovall wouldn't have to wait long to get his reward. A fumble on the ensuing kickoff, caused by Notre Dame's Mike Richardson, was recovered by Leo Ferrine. On 3rd-and-18, Brady Quinn lofted a jump ball in the direction of the 6-5 senior and Stovall came down with it for a 35-yard score to give the Irish a 14-0 lead just 10 minutes into the game. Quinn finished the day 20-of-33 for 295 yards and three touchdowns. This gives him 23 on the year, extending his own single season record.
After a Tennessee field goal, Zbikowski made the Volunteers pay for kicking to him. The junior fielded a punt from Britton Colquitt and went straight up the middle for a 78-yard touchdown to give Notre Dame a 21-3 lead. It was Zbikowski's third straight game with a touchdown and now has four on the year (two on punt returns, two on interception returns). Fulmer knew his special teams were not effective.
"A young punter made a bad decision," Fulmer said. "We gave up a punt return for a score and gave up a lot of field position. Our young punter needs to get it closer to the sideline and not down the middle. We've worked hard on that. The first guy down on punts has to make a play and he didn't. Their punt returner is a fine player."
The Volunteers, to their credit, did not give up. They took advantage when Quinn tried to throw a quick hitter to Samardzija but flung it wildly behind the line of scrimmage, making it a fumble. Robert Williams picked up the fumble for Tennessee and eight plays later, Vols quarterback Erik Ainge hit Bret Smith for a 7-yard touchdown to make it 21-10 Notre Dame heading into the locker room. Ainge, who played all game despite the usual two quarterback rotation with Rick Clausen, did not shine on Saturday, finishing 13-of-32 for 187 yards and two interceptions.
A James Wilhoit field goal cut the Irish lead to eight at 21-13 midway through the third quarter. After Notre Dame went three and out, Ainge hit C.J. Fayton for 23-yards down to the Irish 3. Redshirt freshman Arian Foster, who had his second straight 100-yard rushing day, busted into the end zone for a touchdown. Ainge then found Smith for the two-point conversion to tie the game at 21-21 with under two minutes left in the third quarter.