As practically everyone in the United States continued to count the Irish out week after week, the players and coaches banded together in practice and kept trying to move forward. Slowly but surely they kept inching up that mountain. Against UCLA on Saturday, it wasn't pretty, it wasn't textbook, and it couldn't of been sweeter.
Notre Dame (1-5) notched its first win of the season, a 20-6 victory over the host Bruins (4-2). A Mount Everest like flag plant at midfield would've certainly been fitting. Instead the players sang the fight song twice, once on each side of the stadium to the many Irish fans in attendance.
"I never thought I would be this satisfied with one win," fifth-year senior tight end John Carlson said. He had a team-high six receptions for 38 yards. "In saying that, we're happy to get this monkey off our back, but at the same time we understand BC is coming to town next week, and we have to have another great week of practice."
Following five-straight losses to begin the season, head coach Charlie Weis said that this past Tuesday's practice was the best his team as ever had in his three seasons at Notre Dame. The resiliency finally paid off.
"It's easy after a win to sit there and feel good for yourself, but I'll tell you what, just looking and enjoying that locker room, it's been a long time since they got to sing that fight song. By the way, it was (Maurice) Crum leading the fight song."
Crum was leading the way on the field too. The senior linebacker played a role in five of the seven turnovers the Irish forced. The 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker had two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, seven tackles and one sack.
With the game tied at six with less than seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, Crum made two pivotal plays to swing all momentum towards Notre Dame. The first one was subtle. Crum ripped the ball out of UCLA running back Kahlil Bell's arms for a booth-reviewed turnover on the Bruins' 31-yard line. Though the Irish didn't immediately score, it changed the game's field position, with a Geoff Price punt being downed on the one-yard line. On UCLA's next possession, junior safety David Bruton picked off a pass by reserve quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, and returned it 17 yards to the 2-yard line. Three players later, freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen scored his first career rushing touchdown on a one-yard dive over center.
"That was the time in the game where our players believed they were going to win the game," Weis said.
Thanks to Crum, a few seconds later, they knew they were going to win it.
Leading 13-6 with 1:53 to play, Crum and company quickly slipped in the dagger. Crum and nose tackle Pat Kuntz hit Bethel-Thompson three plays later, forcing a fumble that Crum picked up and ran 34 yards to the end zone with.
"He had a bunch of big plays," Weis said. "And I trusted him on that challenge. I trusted him. He told me he had the ball out. I didn't know whether or not there was going to be a view or not. I called him over and said tell me, did you have the ball out before the guy hit the ground? He said I had the ball out and that's why I challenged."
For the first time all season, the Irish didn't turn the ball over and committed less penalties than the opposition. UCLA was called 11 times for 93 yards, while Notre Dame was whistled eight times for 61 yards. On top of forcing seven turnovers, the Irish defense held UCLA to just 282 total yards, only 89 coming on the ground. Bell's 64 yards rushing marked the first time an opposing running back didn't go over the century mark this year, and the Irish came into Saturday allowing 210 yards rushing per game.
"We knew we were going to play a conservative game on offense," Weis said. "We weren't going to turn the ball over. Too many times this year, we've gone into the game saying don't turn the ball over, don't turn the ball over and then we turn the ball over in our own territory. So we were going to play a field position game.
"I just felt the defense was going to keep on putting the pressure on them and keep on making plays."
They did, as Weis said in the post-game presser, his team just pinned its ears back defensively. The first big play the Irish defense made, put the UCLA offense in a hole they never recovered from. Late in the first quarter, starting quarterback Ben Olson was hit by a blitzing Tom Zbikowski, and the ball was picked up by freshman Kerry Neal, who ran 11 yards to the UCLA one-yard line. Olson left the game, and backup signal-caller Patrick Cowan was also unavailable with an injury.
The defense harassed and pressured the red-shirt freshman Bethel-Thompson, who hadn't thrown a collegiate pass until this evening. The Irish had five sacks, and generated by the far the best pressure of the season. Olson was 4-of-10 passing for 54 yards, and Bethel-Thompson was 12-of-28 for 139 yards and the four interceptions.
On the other side of the ball, Clausen, undefeated as a starter at nearby Oaks Christian, notched his first victory on the collegiate level. He was 17-of-27 passing for 84 yards. Those numbers aren't eye-popping, but he played mistake free for the majority of the evening, giving his team a chance to win.
"He managed the team and that's what we asked him to do," Weis stated. The offense had only 140 yards on the evening, but didn't hurt the team.
"He was pretty fired up today. This is his home turf. Anytime you come home and you're able to beat a quality opponent like UCLA. He's a freshman now, and it's the first time as a starting quarterback he's won, so he's as happy as anybody in there."
UCLA took a 3-0 lead on a 29-yard field goal by Kai Forbath with 4:59 remaining in the first quarter. Notre Dame answered by turning the Neal fumble recovery into a 26-yard field goal by freshman kicker Brandon Walker.
Forbath connected on a 49-yard field goal just before halftime. Walker again answered, this time from 48 yards with 6:42 left in the third. Shortly there after, the Irish ran away with the game.
Weis has been searching all season for the right practice schedule to get his team ready to play. Following five-straight losses, four that were blowouts, he found what he was looking for this past week. The Irish will be hitting hard again on Tuesday. And judging by the way they played against UCLA, and how they've come to practice with their heads up despite the lack of success, you can guarantee this team will come ready to work.
"I think it shows the type of character we have on this team," Carlson said. "We've all put a lot of work into this off-season, and spring ball through camp, and we're not just going to give up. This is what we do and whether we're 0-5 or 5-0, we're going to come to work everyday."