Quinn found a crossing Jeff Samardzija over the middle and the senior wideout did the rest, busting loose for the game-winning 45-yard touchdown with 27 seconds remaining as the Irish survived UCLA's upset bid 20-17. In front of another packed house at Notre Dame Stadium, the stunning conclusion helped the No. 8 Irish improve to 6-1 on the season. More importantly, their hopes for a BCS bowl games are still alive. A loss would have made it almost impossible to land one of the multi-million dollar contests. The win, however they come, will gladly be accepted by head coach Charlie Weis and his team.
"Good teams win games like that," Weis said. "Good teams make a play at the end of the game to win. Let me tell you something. I'm not going to feel miserable about this win, I promise you. You want to be miserable, fine. I'm going to be happy. We're very fortunate to walk out of there with scoring a touchdown inside of 30 seconds to go with no time out left. Sign me up. You want to give me a couple more of those, I'll take them."
The late-game drama started when Quinn was unsuccessful on a fourth-and-short quarterback sneak deep into the fourth quarter. The missed opportunity gave the ball back to UCLA (4-3) at their own 35-yard line with 2:20 to go and protecting a 17-13 lead. One first down and the Bruins would have had one happy flight back to Los Angeles. But the Notre Dame defense, stout all day against the run, stuffed UCLA on three straight runs, forcing the Bruins to punt. For the contest, the Irish held the Bruins to 26 yards on 28 rushing attempts and 243 total yards.
The scene was set: Notre Dame down four with 80 yards to go for the winning score and just 1:02 left on the clock against a speedy and stingy UCLA defense. Quinn might have had his best drive of the year at the perfect time. The senior signal caller hit Samardzija on first down for 21 yards. Then, Quinn found David Grimes on the right sideline for 14 more yards. With the clock winding down, the Notre Dame offensive captain coolly pump-faked, slid in the pocket to the right and hit a crossing Samardzija. The senior wideout made a few UCLA defenders miss and executed great balance as he leaped into the end zone for a touchdown. The score, the 22nd of his career, ties Samardzija with Derrick Mayes for the all-time wide receiver touchdown mark. It also gave the Irish a 20-17 lead. Three plays, 80 yards, 35 seconds. Game over.
"Every second was precious at this time," Weis said. "And then, our defense stops them on the first couple of plays, time out, time out. We knew on third down that the right thing for them to do would be to run again. So, we loaded it up and we had no time outs. The guys popped up. We got off the ground. We went through that whole deal at the end, got the ball back, the offense goes right to the line of scrimmage, so we don't waste any time.
"What it really came down to was players making plays. Quarterback and their receivers made some plays at the end of the game and made one miss, got in the end zone and we were really fortunate to win. But I think that the players showed that they were prepared at the end of the game to handle end of game situations."
"We had a chance to win it," the dejected UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell said after the game. "We were there all the way to the final minute and didn't find a way to finish. That's what it comes down to. Didn't find a way to finish. We had opportunity to do so on almost every phase. Offensively we could have got our first down. We could have finished the game by exhausting Notre Dame's time outs. We didn't do that. We did exhaust time outs but didn't finish it from that side. Our defense could not hold them with a minute and two left with no timeouts."
The other 57:40 of the contest, it looked as if UCLA was the superior team. The Bruins defense was as advertised: fast and great at the end defensive end positions. Hickman and Davis constantly beat their blocker to sack Quinn or pressure him on passing plays. UCLA's run defense was 14th coming into the contest and made it difficult for Darius Walker to find open running lanes. The junior halfback carried the ball 21 times for 53 yards, a paltry average of 2.5 yards per carry. Walker carried the load as freshmen James Aldridge and Munir Prince did not get a single touch in the entire game.
"Our defense played well for the most part," Dorrell said. "We did try to stop the run and we were able to do that pretty well."
Notre Dame enjoyed a brief early lead. The Irish marched 44 yards in seven plays, capped when Quinn found Samardzija in the back of the end zone from two yards out for a 7-0 first quarter advantage. Samardzija caught eight balls for 118 yards and two touchdowns and now has seven touchdowns on the season, tied with Rhema McKnight for the team-lead. Quinn had another solid statistical day, going 27-of-45 for 304 yards and two touchdowns to zero interceptions. He also became the 32nd quarterback in Division 1A history to eclipse the 10,000-yard mark.
If there was one big negative for the Irish defense, it was once again the susceptibility to the big play. UCLA's two touchdowns both came from 36 yards out or more. Bruins quarterback Patrick Cowan hit Marcus Everett for a 54-yard touchdown to tie the score up at 7-all. Cowan struck later in the second quarter when he found William Snead on a slant route and Snead broke the tackles of Ray Herring and Chinedum Ndukwe to complete the score. It gave UCLA a 14-7 lead. Cowan, making the second start of his college career, went 16-of-32 for 217 yards for two touchdowns to one interception.
Notre Dame was inept on third down. The Irish went 4-for-19 on the money down and it's been an area of concern for Weis and the offense. This was evident on the last drive of the first half when Notre Dame was 1-for-4 on third down but 2-for-2 on fourth down. The 19-play drive stalled when Quinn was stopped on an odd quarterback sneak play from the six-yard line. Carl Gioia's 20-yard field goal made it 14-10 UCLA at halftime. Gioia 2-of-3 on the day, missing his only kick from 48 yards out.