If Notre Dame heads to the Bowl Championship Series for the second season in a row - and given the rest of the schedule, that's an extreme likelihood - the Fighting Irish can thank UCLA coach Karl Dorrell.
Dorrell is 0-9 against ranked teams on the road after his Bruins collapsed late against Notre Dame on Saturday, falling, 20-17, on a 45-yard pass-and-run touchdown from Brady Quinn to Jeff Samardzija with 27 seconds left.
"We needed one first down to finish the game and we didn't do that," Dorrell said.
But had he been just a little aggressive on offense, the Bruins might have gotten the first down and won the game.
UCLA stopped Quinn on a sneak on fourth-and-one from the Bruins' 35 with 2:20 left. But UCLA then ran up the middle on three consecutive plays; on fourth-and nine, UCLA took a delay-of-game penalty, then punted. On the punt, Notre Dame was called for holding; the 10-yard penalty would have been enough for a first down had UCLA not been called for delay of game.
UCLA punted again, and Notre Dame drove 80 yards in three plays for the score.
Notre Dame also benefited from bad play-calling when it beat Michigan State on Sept. 23; in that one, the Spartans took a big lead, then eased off the throttle.
"Well, it all starts with the team having faith in the quarterback," Irish coach Charlie Weis said yesterday. "I've been on teams where the team didn't have as much faith in the quarterback as they do with this guy. Our guys believe that if you give Quinn a chance, somehow he'll make the play to win the game."
Notre Dame plays Navy Saturday at M&T; Bank Stadium, and the Irish have won an NCAA-record 42 in a row in the series. Then come games against North Carolina, Air Force and Army before a regular-season finale at Southern California. Even with a loss to the Trojans, a 10-2 Notre Dame team will be in the BCS.
Though we're a long way from Dec. 3, when the bowl pairings are announced, our early projection for BCS bids includes two teams each from the Big Ten, Pacific-10 and Southeastern Conference, as well as one team each from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East and Big 12. Notre Dame makes 10 - filling all the slots.
Thus, Boise State had better get into the top 12 - which guarantees it a slot - or else the Broncos will be left out. They're 15th this week.
On the rebound?
Michigan State appeared to have quit after losing, 40-37, to Notre Dame on Sept. 23. Three consecutive losses followed by a combined 52 points.
Then came Saturday and a game at Northwestern. For the first 40 minutes, the Spartans appeared to have packed it in, giving up 38 points to a woeful Wildcats team.
But from that point on Michigan State was unstoppable. The Spartans rallied from a 38-3 deficit to win, 41-38, the biggest comeback in NCAA Division I-A history.
So, can Michigan State (4-4) go from a season spiraling out of control to one that ends with a bowl game? Frankly, no one left on the schedule - Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota and Penn State - scares anybody, and going 2-2 the rest of the way should get the Spartans into a bowl.
Mike Huguenin writes for the Orlando Sentinel.