30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Jeff Samardzija’s iconic stagger to the end zone against UCLA

Notre Dame's Jeff Samardzija evades a tackle by UCLA's Chris
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Editor’s Note: The original intention of the “30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC” series was to set the stage for the 30th year of the partnership. But then 2020 intervened with a fury, and the season did not grant the time to publish the last half dozen entries. As 2020’s reach lengthens 2021’s winter doldrums, there is no reason not to walk down those memory lanes now.

When UCLA stopped Brady Quinn on fourth-and-one with just more than two minutes remaining in their 2006 tilt, the Bruins also seemed to stop any Notre Dame title hopes, or even hopes of reaching a BCS Bowl. The Irish had lost to then-No. 11 Michigan a month earlier, meaning they needed to win out to hold onto their No. 8 BCS ranking.

And UCLA’s 17-13 lead seemed safe, getting the ball back with 2:25 to drain.

A three-and-out followed, and suddenly Notre Dame was back in business, if needing to cover 80 yards in 61 seconds with no timeouts counts as in business. With a two-time All-American quarterback, a two-time All-American receiver and an All-American tight end on hand, it did.

Quinn to Samardzija, first down.
Quinn to David Grimes, first down.
Quinn with a pump fake so severe the NBC camera jolted, Quinn buying time, Quinn to Samardzija once more … the rest you know.

Finishing that with, “The rest is history,” would be a touch glib, as it was a win over a team that would finish 2006 with a 7-6 record, but it was only the third time in Irish history they had won a game with a touchdown in the final 30 seconds. To some degree, Samardzija’s 45-yard dash was history-making.

“[Quinn] saw me, got it to me, and there was really no thinking involved,” Samardzija said. “You’re just trained. It’s like a little dog, you’re just trying to get to the end zone.

“We’ll say there was no doubt, but who knows.”

Notre Dame never genuinely reentered the title conversation, but it still reached the Sugar Bowl, despite a season-ending loss at No. 3 USC. Though the Quinn-Samardzija era enjoyed a one-possession win at No. 3 Michigan in 2005, the Bush Push (maybe enjoyed was the wrong verb choice) and an all-time comeback at Michigan State in 2006, the desperation touchdown against UCLA remains the defining memory of their explosive two-year stretch.

“Good teams win games like that,” Irish head coach Charlie Weis said. “Good teams at the end of the game, somehow, good teams make a play at the end of the game to win.”

Nobody could sincerely say, “There was no doubt.” Not when Notre Dame had struggled to gain 41 yards on 35 rushing attempts — not that the Bruins did any better on the ground, gaining 26 yards on 28 attempts — and not when the normally-efficient Quinn had completed only 24 of 42 passes (57 percent) for 224 yards (5.3 yards per attempt, compared to his career mark of 7.3). The Karl Dorrell-coached UCLA defense had found a way to stymie Weis’s decisive schematic advantage.

Until that dam broke.

Grimes finished with eight catches for 79 yards, complementing Samardzija’s 8 receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

Of those 118, all anyone remembers is those final 45 yards, the last 15 most of all, as he staggered through a tackle and propelled himself forward just enough to evade the chasing defenders. The iconic image is Samardzija, arms outstretched, half-high-stepping his way across the goal line. He may as well have been high-stepping his way to New Orleans.

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
Ian Book’s last-minute scamper ‘silences’ critics, sparks 16-game winning streak
The 1997 Navy save and the triple-overtime debacle a decade later
Lou Holtz’s farewell
Syracuse and snowballs, a 2008 comedy with a long-term payoff
Kelly’s 100 Notre Dame wins, marked by 2012 Stanford & 2020 Clemson
100 wins later, Brian Kelly’s debut following Charlie Weis’ end
The Bush Push
Offensive high against Pittsburgh brings ironic end to Willingham’s tenure
Darius Walker’s 2004 debut powers upset of No. 8 Michigan
The Game of the Century: No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24
Irish timeout gifts Michigan a last-second field goal in 1994
Irish wave goodbye to Michigan, 31-0, in 2014
Lightning strikes twice in South Florida’s first visit
Three overtimes, two No. 2s, one goal-line fumble
Te’o’s emotions & interceptions overwhelm No. 18 Michigan
Night games return, ‘Crazy Train’ debuts
Blowing out USC completes Irish return
Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated
The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11
Godsey heroics provide Davie hope
Last-minute Golson-to-Koyack TD beats No. 14 Stanford in the rain
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991
Honorable Mentions