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November 7, 2005

Irish keeping their composure

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Notre Dame is beginning to make believers of a lot of people - most notably the Fighting Irish themselves.

For the second straight game, the seventh-ranked Irish (6-2) let an opponent get back into a game and then quickly pulled away.

"You don't pull away because one side of the ball does well; it's because all three phases start clicking," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said Sunday. "I think it's because they're starting to believe that's what's going to happen."

After squandering an 18-point lead to Tennessee (3-5) on Saturday and letting the Volunteers tie the game at 21, the Irish scored 20 unanswered points to win 41-21. In the previous game against Brigham Young, the Irish were up by 18, let the Cougars close to five and then scored 21 unanswered points to win 49-23.

"They're starting to get some confidence when it gets close. There's no panicking on the sideline," Weis said. "They kept their composure. Then they pulled away. That's what good teams are capable of doing."

Defensive end Victor Abiamiri said Weis talks often to the Irish about playing with composure.

"That was his message at halftime and what he kept saying on the sidelines," Abiamiri said. "Things don't always go your way in the game. You cannot lose your mind and you cannot lose your composure."

In both games, it was Brady Quinn's passing that rekindled the Irish. Against Brigham Young, he completed passes of 37 yards to Darius Walker and 36 yards to Maurice Stovall for the score. Against Tennessee, Quinn threw a 73-yard pass to Jeff Samardzija to the Tennessee 2-yard line that set up a 4-yard TD pass to Samardzija.

In both games, though, the Irish defense came up with big plays. Against BYU, Tom Zbikowski returned an interception 83 yards for a touchdown. Against Tennessee, Zbikowski returned an interception 33 yards for a touchdown.

Weis said the key in both games was that once the Irish pulled away again, they never let either team get close again.

"The longer the game stays close, the longer they're going to believe they're going to win the game, the tougher your chances are of finishing them off," Weis said. "Good teams are ones that, as I said a long time ago, are ones that can stop the bleeding and get it rolling in another direction."

The Irish certainly are rolling in a different direction this season, heading toward their first Bowl Championship Series berth since 2000. The latest BCS standings, issued Oct. 31, had the Irish ranked No. 14. They have to win the rest of their games against Navy (5-3), Syracuse (1-7) and Stanford (4-4) and rise to No. 12 in the BCS standings to become BCS eligible.

With four teams ahead of them in the BCS standings losing this week, and several key games still ahead - such as LSU-Alabama, Georgia-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan - the Irish likely would be BCS eligible if they win out. Weis said he's not thinking much about that yet, and neither is his team.

"Everyone understands what's out there. But it's not something we even need to talk about because we know that each week helps get you to where you end up," Weis said. "I think they just know that they need to just keep winning. That's what they need to do."

For more coverage of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, check out IrishIllustrated.com.

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