"Our special teams has been a point of emphasis from the day I got here," Weis said. "You make a commitment to getting better on special teams in a hurry and part of that is playing starters on special teams. What happens is that if someone goes down, everyone thinks you're a dummy because you were playing them. But I don't think anyone is calling me a dummy today with what Zbikowski did in the return game today. Our special teams will have to continue to get better and it's one of the reasons why we've won a few games."
Zbikowski has been the star of the special teams unit. The junior's touchdown, which gave Notre Dame a 21-3 lead in the second quarter, was his second of the year. He returned a punt for a touchdown against USC three weeks backs. The philosophy Zbikowski uses is simple: break tackles and follow the blockers.
"I just had to make one guy miss and I did," Zbikowski said. "The guys did a great job blocking. I saw a hole and ran as fast as I could to the end zone.
"As long as I get blocks, I'm not going down on that first tackle. I try to make that first guy miss anyway I can and try to get as many yards as I can.
"Coach Polian did a great job of seeing their center was a good snapper and their coverage was average. They had a lot of speed in on their punt team and we got the right guys on field."
Zbikowski also returned an interception late in the game for a score to give him four return touchdowns on the year. His teammates on defense love it when they see Zbikowski get his hands on the ball.
"It's fun," sophomore Ambrose Wooden said. "After he did it, he was like, ‘That's how you return it.' It's awesome to watch him. Once he gets the ball, he's trying to make something happen. It was amazing to watch him make guys miss."
*Weis said after the game that Jeff Samardzija's 73-yard catch and run was the play of the day. Tennessee had just tied the game at 21 and forced Notre Dame into a 3rd-and-10. The Volunteer defense had stopped the Irish offense from scoring on the nine previous possessions. The momentum appeared to be shifting towards Tennessee but Irish quarterback Brady Quinn hit Samardzija on a crossing route and the 6-5 junior did the rest.
"It was a great play call," Samardzija said. "They were in a Cover 2 defense and they ran the middle linebacker out of there. I just ran this little under route. O-line did some great blocking and Brady made a great read and gave me the ball. I turned up field and Stovall put on a great block for me and it opened up the left seam for me. Everything kind of opened up for me on that play."
Samardzija did get caught from behind by a Volunteer defender after the 73-yard pickup at the Tennessee two-yard line. The touchdown would have given him the single season record, breaking the tie he had with Derrick Mayes at 11. Fortunately for Samardzija, he got another chance and powered into the zone to break the record with help from another great block from fellow wide out Maurice Stovall. But why did he get caught on the big play pass three plays earlier?
"That was my fault," Samardzija said. "I tried to stiff arm him but I didn't need to. The stiff arm kind of cost me a few steps. It's alright. We still put the ball in the end zone."
The junior has blossomed in Weis's offense. For the year, Samardzija now has 12 touchdowns to go along with 51 grabs for 877 yards. A big, athletic target, Samardzija also has the surest hands on the team. Weis said that pro scouts have begun to take notice.
"He runs around like a small receiver even though he's a big receiver," Weis said. "That's a very good thing because a lot of times when you have a big receiver, you have to deal with certain things like getting out of the break and things like that. He doesn't play like that. He acts like a small receiver which allows you to a) let him use his body as far as size and b) doesn't limit any routes you want him to run. The other part of that is that he has exceptional hands. Every pro scout that comes in here is drooling over him a couple years from now. The guy catches everything."
*Ranked near the bottom of Division One in pass defense, the Notre Dame secondary had a good day in defending against the Tennessee air attack. While not exactly up to the level of USC, the Volunteers were averaging over 200 yards per game through the air and have several big targets to throw to.
Tennessee elected to go with sophomore Erik Ainge for the entire game and it did not pay off. Ainge finished the day 13-of-32 for 187 yards and a touchdown. But he also threw two costly interceptions. Wooden returned Ainge's first mistake of the day 41 yards to the Volunteer 34, setting up a 36-yard Fitzpatrick field goal to give Notre Dame a 31-21 lead. Zbikowski clinched the victory when he took an errant Ainge pass 33 yards to pay dirt.
"A lot of those guys in the secondary made a bunch and bunch of plays," Weis said. "The quarterback was 13-for-32. Obviously the secondary did a good job. I was pretty pleased with how that ended up working out as far as coverage went."