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Winning play done in the dirt

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From South Bend Tribune



Weis correctly draws conclusion to game, season



Tribune Columnist




PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Eighty yards from the end zone, one point down, with 1:46 to play and an ailing kicking game that made a touchdown feel like the only way to win, Charlie Weis improvised.


He went away from the elaborate game plan on the laminated sheet in his hand and the crib notes on quarterback Brady Quinn's wristband.


Forget those connoisseur's selections from his expansive playbook based on meticulous study of Stanford's tendencies. To generate momentum on the drive that would define the 2005 Notre Dame football season for better or worse, Weis went sandlot.



"It was definitely an in-the-dirt type of play with a stick," Irish wide receiver Jeff Samardzija said.


Everything Notre Dame built in the previous 10 games, not to mention the promise of Bowl Championship Series revenue and respect, teetered on a perilous fault line.


Instead of a play the Irish worked on all week, Weis called one that required a refresher course right there on the sideline with the season on the line.


"About five seconds before we went on the field," he said, they went over assignments that sounded familiar enough from the last time they practiced it over a month ago.


Quinn, channeling Weis, even had time to offer some Jersey sarcasm about the preposterous idea of blowing the dust off a shelved play in that situation.


"Brady goes, 'Thanks a lot for bringing one out of the archives,'" Weis said.


Samardzija ran his ad-libbed route and the cool quarterback with the one-liner for his coach threw a pass with the poise and precision of an ER surgeon.


Chewing up a 30-yard chunk of precious Bay Area real estate, Samardzija moved Notre Dame to midfield and put his coach's mind at ease.


"That was the one that changed field position," Weis said, "and now all of a sudden, I kind of felt good about our chances."


Whatever the situation this season, Weis always exuded that feeling, a confident vibe that never wavered. Not three touchdowns down to Michigan State, not in the intimidating shadow of No. 1 USC, not in the sweaty palm, dry mouth territory Saturday night at Stanford.


From dirt to pay dirt, it took Notre Dame six plays and 51 seconds to score the decisive touchdown in its 38-31 win, a testament to a team internalizing a coach's personality.


For all the offensive sophistication Weis developed in his NFL career, the composure he acquired conditioned him to handle the pressurized atmosphere in a way that conveyed calm.


"Ten years ago," he said, "I would've been a raving maniac."


His choice of plays to begin Saturday's game-winning drive might have made Quinn question his state of mind, but they have come to share a psychological connection.


"I put all my trust in coach Weis and everything that he wants to do out there and the plays that he calls," Quinn said. "We know it works, it's just that we haven't practiced it all week."


Just that.


"Most quarterbacks can't do that. Most quarterbacks need reps at a play," Weis said. "They need to rep a play over and over again for it to have any chance for success, but this kid's something special."


Confidence passed from coach to quarterback to the entire team redefined Notre Dame's football personality this season.


It built to a crescendo Saturday night on the final offensive possession of the last regular season game with time, momentum and emotion working against the Irish. With a Fiesta Bowl invitation and $14 million in the balance too, just to fray nerve endings a little more.


"I think everyone was completely calm," Samardzija said. "I think everyone understood what they had to do. It was laid out there for us."


So they reached for something from their past -- not just the play itself, but the reservoir of trust in each other from similar moments earlier in the season.


Even in losses to Michigan State and USC, Notre Dame displayed traits it hadn't shown in recent years, playing at once tenacious and poised football, the attitude it takes to turn a half-forgotten play into 30 yards.


After that, the rest of the way into the end zone seemed to be just a matter of routine performed with methodical urgency, if there can be such a thing.


"The team had composure, went right down the field, walked it in and scored," Weis said.


Just like they drew it up.

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