Take your pick: offense, defense or special teams. All three facets contributed to the 8th ranked Irish's 41-21 win over a tough, physical Tennessee team. Whether it was Tom Zbikowski's second punt return of the season for a touchdown or Jeff Samardzija's game-changing 78-yard pass reception to set up the winning score or Ambrose Wooden intercepting Volunteer quarterback Erik Ainge in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, this squad reflected a coach's dream of a total team effort.
This season, the Irish offense has gotten all the publicity and rightfully so. The drastic change from a sluggish unit searching for points to a 2005 edition ripe with big-play potential has carried this team to a 6-2 record. Weis's influence on Brady Quinn has been immense and resulted in 23 touchdowns to four interceptions. Samardzija is an All-American candidate and making Notre Dame fans everywhere scratch their heads and wonder where was this guy last season.
These notable accomplishments aside, Maurice Stovall's play has been exemplary. The 6-5 senior from Philadelphia, PA only had two catches for 36 yards but one of those was a textbook example of a big, strong receiver using their height advantage over a smaller defender. Stovall's 35-yard touchdown put the Irish up 14-0 early into the game against a Tennessee team that struggles to score.
It was his blocking, though, that has caught the attention of coaches and fans not only this past Saturday but all season long. Stovall's takeout block allowed tight end Anthony Fasano to score the longest touchdown of his career and put Notre Dame up 7-0.
The most important one occurred on a 3rd-and-10 with Tennessee's defense bearing down upon a suddenly vulnerable Irish offense. The Volunteers had stopped Notre Dame on nine straight possessions and it appeared the tenth was inevitable. Quinn hit Samardzija on a short crossing route and turned the corner. Stovall's block along the sidelines allowed Samardzija the room to gallop down to the Tennessee two-yard line, where three plays later, Stovall threw another crucial block to spring his receiving buddy into the end zone. Stovall has fulfilled potential in 2005 not only on the stat sheet but also on the field being a key component in an explosive Irish attack.
The defense had a big hand in this victory. The unit racked up 11 tackles for loss, three sacks and held Ainge to 13-of-32 for 187 yards and two interceptions. Sophomore Apache linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr. had a breakout performance with three TFL's and fellow backer Corey Mays wasn't far behind with two of his own.
The secondary, belittled all year for giving up numerous big plays and over 300 yards a game through the air, stepped up to the challenge. Wooden's interception thwarted Tennessee's potential game-tying drive and the return set up a field goal by D.J. Fitzpatrick to make it a two-possession game at 31-21. As usual, Zbikowski has a flair for the dramatic, sealing the game with a 33-yard interception return for a score, his second in as many weeks. This group, possibly the strength of the defense in 2006, has improved each week and Weis made it a point at his Sunday press conference to talk about their effort in the victory.
No team effort would be complete if special teams was involved in the discussion. Zbikowski's punt return for a touchdown was the standout play from a group that continually keeps shining and putting Notre Dame in a position to win. Leo Ferrine recovered Mike Richardson's strip on a kickoff and gave the offense a short field to work with. Stovall's touchdown grab three plays later made this play even better. D.J. Fitzpatrick was perfect in two field goal tries. Coverage generally favored the Notre Dame units. Weis has made no secret of his desire to be great on special teams and coach Brian Polian deserves a lot of credit for the performance so far this season.
The Tennessee win was that total team effort. Some players may have stood out more than others but all three facets of the game were clicking at the right time. The defense stiffened in the fourth quarter. The offense made the big play when the game was tied. The special teams were close to special. It's a positive sign that as this season winds down, the Irish appear to be improving in all facets of the game. It's also a positive that fans can talk about a potential BCS bowl game instead of an Insight Bowl appearance.