COLLEGE PARK - Maryland defensive linemen Jeremy Navarre and Dion Armstrong crouched low on the Death Valley turf trying to protect a 20-17 fourth-quarter lead.
It was fourth-and-inches for Clemson - the biggest play of the young season for the Terps - and the two linemen were anticipating a quarterback sneak. As Navarre and Armstrong plunged forward at the snap, Alex Wujciak - the linebacker who had waited so long for a big-game moment like this - vaulted toward the line and into quarterback Cullen Harper before he could make a first down.
Wujciak's father, Alan, wearing a red Terps shirt in the delirious Maryland section, was one of the few fans in the 81,500-seat stadium last Saturday who understood what the play - and the game - signified to his son. It meant he was back.
The elder Wujciak (pronounced WOE-jack), a former Notre Dame offensive lineman, talked afterward about how his son redshirted his freshman year, then tore a knee ligament the next preseason after leading the team in tackles in each of three spring scrimmages.
"As a parent, your heart just goes out to him," the father said. "That was a tough two years for him."
Wujciak's 16 tackles against the Tigers were the most by a Terp since Erin Henderson's 18 against Virginia last season. "It was the most unbelievable thing so far for me," he said. "There were 81,000 people just silent, and the game wasn't even over yet. And there was that little Maryland section going nuts. We saw them all jumping up and down."
His 8.6 tackles a game are fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference heading into today's game at Virginia. The Terrapins, who held on to defeat Clemson, 20-17, are seeking their fourth straight win.
"I think it's just having a nose for the ball," teammate Moise Fokou said of Wujciak, who plays a middle linebacker position coaches call the "Mike."
"Wherever it goes, he just wants to be a part of it," Fokou said. "I'm just so happy to see he's back and playing well."
The elder Wujciak played for the Irish in the mid-1970s with Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, the pint-sized walk-on whose story was dramatized in the movie Rudy. Alex Wujciak was about 12 when he watched the film. At the end, the younger Wujciak got a surprise.
There, in a final scene, was a photo of the real Ruettiger on the sideline next to a bulky lineman with "WUJCIAK" clearly visible on his blue No. 66 jersey.
"I knew he played at Notre Dame, but my dad never told me he was in the movie. I was kind of like, 'Oh, Dad, look!' He said, 'Yeah, I forgot to tell you.' "
Alex Wujciak, from West Caldwell, N.J., said his father never pressured him to attend Notre Dame or to play football. But Alex and his brother, Connor, were big and competitive, and both gravitated to the sport. Connor, who just turned 16, is already 6 feet 3 - the same height as Alex - and plays multiple sports. "They'd start wrestling, and the house would shake," the elder Wujciak said of the boys.
While some kids grew up emulating quarterbacks or running backs, Alex loved to watch Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher pound ball carriers into the turf. "He's a big guy who can run and do everything," Wujciak said of Urlacher.
Notre Dame did recruit Wujciak. "I had really followed Notre Dame because of my dad. They recruited me a little bit, but I wanted to go to a school that really wanted me," he said.
Maryland coaches said some schools might have had initial concerns about the speed of Wujciak, who said he weighs about 248 pounds. Wujciak and his coaches said he runs the 40-yard-dash in about 4.6 seconds - a good time for a college linebacker.
Wujciak's Maryland career seemed on course when he had 10 tackles and an interception in the 2007 Red-White spring game. That August, his left knee got stuck in the grass during practice as he was getting pushed from behind. "I thought I just hyperextended it, which I had done before. So I finished practice. When I came in from practice my knee just looked like a balloon," Wujciak said.
He missed another year, but his father said he didn't doubt his son's resolve to return. "He's been playing linebacker since he was in third grade," Alan Wujciak said.
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