The starting weak side linebacker totaled two tackles for the contest. This included a hit on Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli which forced him to fumble on an option play. Irish safety Tommy Zbikowski picked up the loose ball and went 25-yards for the touchdown to increase the Notre Dame lead to 27-0.
"I saw him put his hands up and saw Travis," Zbikowski said. "I don't know who else was there to make the hit. My eyes lit up and I just made sure I scooped it up. The best part is turning behind you and seeing 300 pound defensive linemen in a dead sprint for you. I tried to get out of the way of one but Trevor (Laws) tried to take me out. That's what the game is all about."
But Thomas's presence was felt more strongly in other areas of the game. On special teams, where he is the captain, Thomas took a direct snap on a punt and rumbled 43 yards down to the Nittany Lion five yard line, punctuating it by dragging a Penn State defender for the final five yards. Then, four plays later on fourth-and-goal from the one, he took a pitch left and rammed his way into the end zone for a touchdown to make it 34-3. It was Thomas's first score of the year and sixth of his career.
"It was a personal game for me," Thomas said. "I was real pumped up for this one. We came out ready to go."
"He's a Pennsylvania guy," head coach Charlie Weis said. "You have to remember it's his home state and they're a big school in that state. This was a big game for Travis. This wasn't just another game. This was a chance to play against some of his friends and the people he grew up with."
"He's intense every game," Zbikowski said about Thomas. "That's just the way he is. I think he just wants to play defense. He's been waiting his time to get on the field. Definitely being from Pennsylvania, he wanted to bring his best game against Penn State."
*Two weeks in a row, the Irish defense have exceeded expectations. Last week, they held Georgia Tech scoreless for the final 35 minutes of the contest. Today, despite giving up 383 yards of total offense, Notre Dame went into the fourth quarter with a 34-3 lead. Penn State did make some mistakes but the Irish forced two turnovers from Morelli, one a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and an interception by Chinedum Ndukwe.
"That's how I expected our defense to play," Weis said. "Remember now, we were playing against a team with one experienced offensive lineman and with four new guys. The quarterback is also relatively new. What you have to do is get some heat on them. Each week, it's something different. This week, we tried to get heat on them."
"That s two solid teams with solid weapons on the offensive side of the ball," Zbikowski said. "We held them to 10 and 17 points. Two pretty good offenses there and we did a good job against them."
One area that the Nittany Lions were successful in was the rush game. Penn State rolled up 158 yards on the ground. Starting tailback Tony Hunt had 12 carries for 74 yards. The flip side: Notre Dame forced Morelli into a 21-of-33 performance for 189 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception.
"We were trying to shut down their wide receivers," Weis said. "You can't shut down everything. I was concerned with their wide receivers. I think they have top-line speed. I don't think this was an average group of wide receivers we were going against. When you're going against a group like that and at least hold them in check, then you're going to open up some opportunities in the running game. That's what happened in the game."
*A relief to Notre Dame nation was the Saturday afternoon turned in by kicker Carl Gioia. The senior was a perfect 2-for-2 in field goals, both coming from a distance of 35 yards. This was after a disastrous performance last weekend where Gioia missed two kicks in a tight ballgame that could have made the difference.
"All week, people have been telling me it's the next kick that matters," Gioia said. "You can't live in the past and there's nothing you can do about those two misses last weekend against Georgia Tech. I looked forward to that first kick and I'm glad it came early. I could get that monkey off my back."
"I was very happy for that situation to occur," Weis said. "Especially early in the game, we were like, ‘Ok, Carl, get in there.' The sooner you get a player out of that rut, the sooner you can move past that. It's always good when a good quarterback throws an interception and comes back and gets a completion. It's always important that when you're running back fumbles, and I'm not hoping he does, to get him a touch right away. Carl gets in there, gets the first one, gets the second one and all of a sudden his confidence is back."
*Up 27-3, Notre Dame was enjoying a comfortable lead. They faced a 4th-and-3 from the Penn State 48 and brought on the punt team. But instead of punting, the Irish decided to fake it. Travis Thomas took the direct snap and went 43 yards for a first-and-goal.
"That's a call we weren't even going to make if they left the defense out on the field," Weis said. "I made the call that if they put their defense out on the field, we're punting it and if they put the punt return team on the field, we're going to do it. They put their punt return team on the field. I'm not a guy that sits there and makes statements. I'm a guy who wants his team to get better and winning every time we go out there."
Notre Dame opponents now have that on tape to prepare for. But next year, the Irish travel to Happy Valley to face Penn State.
*Five more freshmen made their debut on Saturday. In addition to the 10 who saw game action last week at Georgia Tech, linebacker Toryan Smith, offensive lineman Eric Olsen, wide receiver Robby Parris, tight end Konrad Reuland and defensive lineman John Ryan made their first career appearances.