Irish Fall in Second Overtimeposted by John Vannie
The game followed a familiar script for Notre Dame. I was reminded of the November 2008 losses to Pittsburgh and Syracuse in which the Irish failed to put away blue collar teams and paid the price late in the closing moments. UConn stayed close enough to maintain its game plan of smash mouth football, which kept undue pressure from quarterback Zach Frazer.
The Huskies were clearly the better team from the second quarter until Dixon brought down the curtain, but it took a gift from the Notre Dame defense to get them jump-started. Trailing 14-0 early in the second period, UConn was about to go three and out when a personal foul penalty on Sergio Brown turned a punting situation into a first down near midfield. Todman burst through the arm-tackling Irish moments later for a 43-yard touchdown to get his team back in the game.
UConn’s secondary covered well and forced the Irish passing game to the outside where Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd could inflict only minimal damage. The result was that Notre Dame could not sustain a drive in its three possessions during the second quarter. Meanwhile, the Husky running game began to pick up steam after a slow start, and UConn added a field goal before halftime to trail by only 14-10.
It appeared that the tide would turn back toward the Irish in the third quarter. They took the kickoff and quickly moved downfield before running into a fourth down and short yardage situation. Armando Allen burst through the line for 26 yards into scoring territory, but the drive stalled and David Ruffer came on to kick a short field goal. This felt like a victory for Connecticut, who may have had to take more risks if they trailed by two scores instead of one. As it turned out, Todman tied the game seconds later when he brought back the ensuing kickoff.
As the game moved into the fourth quarter, a promising effort by Notre Dame to regain control hit a snag when Michael Floyd fumbled at the Husky 14 yard line. The defense held and the Irish got the ball back in good field position, but a Clausen pass to Floyd on third down fell incomplete inside the red zone. Once again, Notre Dame could only gain a three point margin with 10:47 remaining.
The Huskies fought back in a most unconventional way – through the air. After a fourth down conversion near midfield on a gutsy call by Edsall, Frazer uncorked a deep sideline pass to Marcus Easley. UConn’s hopes of taking its first lead in the game died on the next play when Brian Smith stepped in front of Frazer’s pass in the end zone to preserve Notre Dame’s 20-17 advantage.
Despite the fact that its defense was on the field for most of the second half, UConn stuffed the Irish once again and regained possession at their own 48. The Husky ground game was in high gear at this point as Todman and Dixon ripped through Notre Dame’s backpedaling defenders. Dixon appeared to score on two separate plays during the drive, but each was called back due to a holding penalty. The result was that the Huskies had to settle for a tying field goal with 1:10 left in regulation.
The stage was set for Clausen to drive his team to victory in the closing seconds, but Allen was stripped of the ball from behind after catching a screen pass in his own territory. UConn recovered at the Irish 41 and had 49 seconds to get into position for the victory. The first phase of the plan worked when Dixon covered 21 yards in two plays, but Dave Teggart hooked the potential game winning kick from 37 yards as the fourth quarter expired.
Both teams scored touchdowns in the first overtime. Frazer, who had accuracy problems throughout the day, surprised everyone with quite possibly the most important play of the game when he hit Kashif Moore with an 11-yard touchdown pass. This well-thrown ball came on a third down play when memories of his previous interception were still fresh. Clausen held serve with consecutive passes to Floyd that tied the game at 27, and the Irish started the second overtime on offense.
UConn’s secondary came through again with a pass breakup on third down, so Notre Dame settled for a 36-yard field goal by Ruffer. The crowd was uneasy despite the 30-27 Irish advantage, and UConn’s offense trotted onto the field with palpable confidence. After an incomplete pass intended to catch Notre Dame off guard, Edsall kept the ball on the ground. Todman covered nine yards on second down and Dixon converted a third and one before scoring untouched two plays later from the four yard line.
Once again, the winning team played more physical football on both sides of the ball. UConn operated at a disadvantage with the relatively shaky Frazer at quarterback, but Todman and Dixon bridged the gap by rushing for 244 yards on 46 carries. While Clausen and his receivers were statistically productive, Notre Dame managed only six points in the final three quarters of regulation.
As has been the case throughout the Weis era, the opponent enjoyed a distinct edge in the performance of its special teams. Todman’s kickoff return and the explosive punt returns by Robert McClain were evidence of good coaching in this area. UConn’s coverage units were also outstanding in stark contrast to their Irish counterparts.
Let’s review the questions we raised in the preview that helped determine the outcome:
Will the Irish be able to keep Witten from adding to his impressive sack total? Witten had only one sack, but the Huskies were still able to rush four linemen all day and drop into coverage. A fourth quarter sack by Kendall Reyes enabled UConn to tie the game at 20.
Can Frazer control his nerves and deliver a quality performance? Frazer was only 12 of 25 and looked to be shaky under the blitz, but his touchdown pass in overtime was a big time throw.
Will Clausen be asked to throw 40 passes? Clausen threw exactly 40 passes in regulation, while the Irish ground game managed only 123 yards in 35 attempts.
Can Notre Dame’s defense neutralize UConn’s rushing attack? Yes, but only in the first quarter. After that, the dogs were out and barking up a storm.
Will the Huskies be able to capitalize on their distinct advantage in the punting game? Notre Dame’s Ben Turk actually out-punted his acclaimed Husky rival. It was the return game that killed the Irish in this contest.
Will the importance of Senior Day be sufficient motivation for the Irish to match UConn’s all-out effort? Notre Dame showed solidarity and emotion at the start, but UConn was a more determined bunch at the end.
The 33-30 loss was a bitter pill for the Irish players, but it will have no impact on the future of their head coach. All signs before and after the game pointed to a change at the helm, and the Notre Dame fan base is already swimming in speculation. The next head coach will likely have to move forward without Clausen and Tate, but the bigger problem will be a restoration of physical play and mental toughness that has been absent in recent seasons.
Stanford is the last stop in this season of unfulfilled expectations, and a 6-6 finish seems almost certain. An 0-4 November would not be surprising given the team’s poor fundamentals, but the reality of losses to programs the Irish should beat routinely is clearly unacceptable. The larger question is whether the stewards of the program at Notre Dame have the wisdom, courage or even the inclination to fix the problem. The clock is ticking, and we are waiting for an answer.