Irish Offensive Player of the GameHe started slowly, completing just one pass in the opening quarter, but rebounded over the next 15 game minutes to throw the game's first touchdown pass staking the Irish to a 14-3 lead.
By the end of the decisive third period, freshman quarterback Tommy Rees had fired three touchdown tosses, no interceptions and more important guided the Notre Dame Football program to its first win over a ranked foe since Brady Quinn led the No. 2 ranked Irish to a home beating of Penn State on September 9, 2006.
The Lake Forest, Illinois freshman's final numbers were an economical 13 for 20 for 129 yards and three scores. He hit eight consecutive passes during a middle quarter stretch – the second time in as many games Rees connected on eight throws without a miss – two of which found senior receiver Duval Kamara for corner route touchdown grabs to put the game out of reach.
Rees is the IrishEyes offensive MVP for the second straight week – third if you count a default nomination from the debacle vs. Navy – and he has helped move the Irish to within one win of bowl eligibility.
Defensive Player – and defensive senior – of the GameCandidates abound but Saturday's award goes to the omnipresent Harrison Smith, whose seven tackles and interception (described below), helped stifle multiple Utah threats. Also playing a key early role was the much-maligned Brian Smith, whose final Stadium appearance marked the third double-digit tackle game of his Irish career and first since early November 2009.
The team's backup DOG linebacker (outside), Smith subbed inside for the second consecutive week for injured sophomore Carlo Calabrese. He recorded 10 assisted tackles (the high tackle total for the contest) and two downfield pass breakups, though one was technically a dropped interception on which he might have scored.
Classmate Gary Gray was likewise all over the field, finishing with five stops and three crucial coverage moments, two of which ended Utah threats on fourth down. Gray was victimized late in the 3rd Quarter on an ugly fourth-down catch-and-run that brought the ball from the ND 32-yard line to inside the 8. But it was the senior corner's tight coverage on 3rd and 4th down to end the series that stopped the visitor's deepest penetration of the contest.
Sophomore inside ‘backer Manti Te'o made hay late, collecting five of his nine total tackles in the final period, including a game-best 1.5 tackles-for-loss and a 7-yard sack of QB Jordan Wynn. Added to freshman Prince Shembo's sack earlier in the contest, Te'o's dropping of Wynn gave the Irish defense the season's first multi-sack game vs. Utah's formidable front.
Sparked ThriceA stagnant Notre Dame offense managed just 9 yards on 10 plays in the game's opening quarter, but the Irish led after the end of 15 minutes nonetheless, thanks to a blocked punt, scoop and score by junior cornerback Robert Blanton.
Blanton burst untouched off the left side of the Utah line before coming under control to hammer Sean Sellwood's punt to the turf at the Utes 6-yard line. From there he calmly gathering the bouncing pigskin and dashed in for the go-ahead score. (Blanton was credited with a 25-yard punt return TD as Utah snapped from their own 25-yard line.)
The junior cover man also broke up a potential touchdown pass in the end zone midway through the 4th Quarter.
Back from the bench: Injured (twice) in a Week Four loss to the Stanford Cardinal, junior tailback Jonas Gray returned Saturday to submit his first significant contribution of the 2010 season, opening the 2nd Quarter with a 7-yard gain up the gut, then erupting for a 36-yard broken play around the left end to set up Notre Dame's first score.
Gray, whose 2nd Quarter sprint was aided greatly by blocks from wide receivers Michael Floyd and Duval Kamara, helped the Irish move the ball from their own 39 to the Utah 8-yard line. Two plays later, Rees found Floyd for a short touchdown and a 14-3 Irish advantage. Gray finished with three carries for 44 yards on the afternoon, all in the first half. The total accounted for more than half of Notre Dame's first half yardage and his two carries for 43 yards on the drive matched Rees' passing total over the opening two quarters.
Finally…Dynamic: Notre Dame dominated the game's third and oft-crucial phase, special teams. In addition to Blanton's first quarter blocked punt touchdown, the Irish held Utah, the nation's No. 1 punt return unit to minus 2 yards on six total punts.
But the crucial Phase Three blow came courtesy of the always solid Irish kick coverage group. Freshman Austin Collinsworth forced a fumble to open the second half and the loose pigskin was pounced on by fellow freshman Daniel Smith – a South Bend native – at the Utes' 26-yard line. The miscue proved immediately costly as Rees found Kamara on a beautiful 26-yard corner route for a 21-3 advantage just 13 seconds into the second stanza.
Self-Inflicted WoundsWhile Blanton's and Collinsworth's aforementioned aggressiveness created 14 points for the Irish, the visitors repeatedly shot themselves in the foot as well, committing nine penalties for 65 yards over the game's first 30 minutes. The Utes suffered penalties on both kick and punt returns as well as back-to-back false start penalties when they'd breached the Irish 36-yard line in the 2nd Quarter. At one point in the first half, Utah had allowed the Irish 95 total yards but had committed 65 due to penalized mistakes.
Notre Dame secured the game's only turnover from scrimmage as well, a beautiful break-on-the-ball interception by game captain Harrison Smith, who sprinted from the field's opposite hash to cover a crossing route thrown to the Notre Dame sideline.
Re-freshed froshThe regular season home finale marked the final appearance at Notre Dame Stadium for a pair of outside linebackers. It also unofficially announced the emergence of the team's next young threat at the position: Prince Shembo.
Shembo, who collected two sacks in a road win over Boston College in Week Five, was concussed in the team's October 30 loss to Tulsa. He returned Saturday to record a key 3rd Quarter sack of Utes QB Jordan Wynn. The 10-yard takedown in the Utah backfield occurred one play after Wynn had connected with tight end Kendrick Moeai for a 25-yard gain near midfield.
Shembo, who finished with a career-high five tackles and two QB hurries, helped put the finishing touches on the contest late as his second QB hurry forced Wynn to fire harmlessly incomplete inside the Notre Dame red zone midway through the final period.
Also aiding the front seven's cause was freshman defensive end Kona Schwenke. Schwenke made his field debut in Game Nine vs. Tulsa (and promptly recovered a fumble). He made his presence felt early Saturday with a 2nd Quarter QB hurry of Wynn, then later contributed a downfield, 4th Down tackle well short of the sticks to officially end the day for the visiting Utes offense.
Schwenke's two tackles marked a career best; more important, he was a regular part of the defensive line rotation, an occurrence which lessens the blow of a redshirt-year lost due to appearances in the season's final month.
Senior momentBrian Smith led all tacklers with 10; Harrison Smith was our defensive MVP with Gary Gray also challenging for the honor. But the unquestioned Senior of the Game was formerly forgotten target Duval Kamara.
Kamara began his Irish career in 2007 by setting freshman records for receptions (34) and touchdowns (4). Both marks were shattered by Michael Floyd one season later and Floyd had played behind, and in the shadow, of Floyd since.
Kamara caught two balls Saturday, both corner route touchdowns which staked the Irish to leads of 21-3 and 28-3 in the decisive third quarter. The first TD grab, a 26-yarder to the north end zone's right (back) pylon, was his first touchdown since last October 31 vs. Washington State. It also marked the longest score of is career (previously 25 yards vs. Duke as a frosh).
The senior's second touchdown, an 18-yarder to the same end zone's left (back) pylon, gave Kamara two TD catches for only the second time in his career (Navy 2007). It was his first touchdown at the Stadium since a leaping Week Two grab vs. Michigan in the rain-soaked beating of the Wolverines in 2008.
Apropos of nothing, four of Kamara's seven career touchdown grabs occurred when Mother Nature dumped a good deal of rain on the Stadium sod (the touchdowns/wins over Duke, Michigan and Utah described above were all played in the slop).
Thorn in their sideSealver Siliga served as a bright spot for the visitors, totaling a sack, tackle-for-loss and pass breakup to go with four solo tackles. No Utah defender contributed more than one TFL; no offensive weapon totaled more than 48 net yards.
Sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn threw for just 194 yards, the second-lowest total by an opposing quarterback vs. the Irish through 10 games this season (and the best effort of the season considering the lowest number belonged to Ricky Dobbs and the run-dominated Naval Academy.)
Numbers to NoteA look at Notre Dame's top players…by the numbers:
Rushing attempts/yards: Cierre Wood 19-71
Receptions/yards: Michael Floyd 4-39
Quarterback rating: Tommy Rees 13-20 passing, 129 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT for a collegiate rating of 164.9. Rees' official QB rating in his last appearance (Tulsa) was 126.4. (For the sake of comparison, Dayne Crist's highest rated games this season were 169.0 vs. Western Michigan and 163.7 vs. Michigan).
Total tackles: Brian Smith 10. All assisted.
Solo tackles: Manti Te'o, Harrison Smith and Gary Gray each recorded 3 solo stops to pace the home team.
Defensive "Big Plays": Prince Shembo 4 (sack, TFL, 2 QB Hurry). Manti Te'o recorded 2.5 (1.5 TFL and 1 sack) while Brian Smith added 2 (passes defended).
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