SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Just when it looked as if UCLA would finally get the big road victory over a top-10 team that the football program desperately needed, the Bruins instead turned Notre Dame's Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija into heroes.
With no timeouts, Quinn drove the Irish 80 yards in three plays over the final minute and ended UCLA's upset bid with a 45-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Samardzija with 27 seconds left to give No. 10 Notre Dame a 20-17 victory Saturday in front of 80,795 at Notre Dame Stadium.
"This one hurts because we lost a game that we played so well and fought so hard for," UCLA cornerback Rodney Van said. "It's rough to let something slip away in the last minute like that. You have to play a full 60 minutes and today we played 59 minutes and 30 seconds."
The Bruins, who dropped to 4-3, have no one to blame but themselves for not defeating the Irish (6-1) in the first matchup between the teams since 1964. Sophomore quarterback Patrick Cowan threw two touchdown passes, and UCLA's defense sacked Quinn five times and had the Irish searching for answers most of the game.
But when the Bruins needed to close out a win — which is something quality teams do on a consistent basis — they fell asleep.
"We played a great football game, but we just didn't finish," UCLA running back Chris Markey said. "There are a lot of coulda, shoulda, wouldas, but the point is we didn't finish."
The Bruins, who led, 17-13, and had the ball with 2:20 remaining in the fourth quarter, failed to execute down the stretch in several areas, from time management to missed tackles.
UCLA blew its best chance to seal a victory when it failed to get a first down on its possession before Samardzija's touchdown catch. Three consecutive running plays with two Notre Dame timeouts left the Bruins with a fourth and nine from their 39.
Instead of punting the ball to keep the clock moving, UCLA took a delay-of-game penalty. The Bruins then punted and Notre Dame picked up a 10-yard penalty for holding. But instead of having a first down — which would have been the case if UCLA had not had the delay-of-game penalty — the Bruins punted again and Aaron Perez kicked the ball into the end zone.
On the first play of their final drive, the Irish moved the pocket to help give Quinn time and he made the most of it with a 21-yard completion to Samardzija, who was able to get out of bounds.
The next play, UCLA tried a defensive line stunt that did not work and Quinn completed a pass to David Grimes for 14 yards. On the third play, Quinn stepped up to avoid the rush of Bruce Davis and threw a pass toward the right side to Samardzija, who caught the ball at about the UCLA 28 and broke a tackle by Dennis Keyes before reaching the end zone.
"I was running an in route from the other side and just stuck with it when Brady got flushed out of the pocket," said Samardzija, who finished with eight catches for 118 yards. "We just linked up. He found me in the open area and I just saw a lot of guys running around everywhere. I was able to make a few miss when I tried to keep the play going."
Keyes said it was his responsibility to make the stop.
"We were in a two [deep zone] coverage, and [Samardzija] got into the gap when the quarterback scrambled," Keyes said. "We just didn't make a play on the ball . I was in a bad position and couldn't make the play, but I should have.
"As the safety, I'm supposed to take him down and give us a chance to line up to win the game. I put the blame on my shoulder for that."
Cowan, who completed 16 of 32 passes for 217 yards with one interception, also felt as if he let the Bruins down.
"I felt like I could have played a whole lot better," he said. "Even in just a few situations to keep a drive going, I didn't make the plays. I take total responsibility for that."
In the first half, UCLA could not have been any more resilient in taking a 14-10 lead into intermission.
The Bruins, who had Justin Medlock's 42-yard field goal nullified by penalty only to watch him miss the ensuing 47-yard attempt on their first possession, gave up the first score when Quinn hooked up with Samardzija for a two-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter to give Notre Dame a 7-0 lead.
But UCLA bounced back to take a 14-7 lead with two second-quarter touchdown passes from Cowan, 54 yards to Marcus Everett and 36 yards to tight end William Snead.
Notre Dame's Carl Gioia kicked a field goal at the end of the second quarter to cut the Bruins' lead to 14-10 at halftime. After Gioia made another field goal in the third quarter, UCLA had a great opportunity to score another touchdown midway into the fourth after driving deep into Notre Dame territory, but the Bruins had to settle for a field goal to take a 17-13 lead.
Over the final 7:19 of the game, UCLA forced Notre Dame to punt once and stopped the Irish on downs on another possession. But the Bruins couldn't do it a third time.
"This was a game that I felt that we were going to win, but we didn't," said Markey, who had only 32 yards in 19 carries. "It's a tough one to swallow. We just didn't put them away and it cost us."
Believe in miracles
Saturday was only the third time Notre Dame has won a game with a touchdown in the final 30 seconds. Date Score Time left Site Jan. 1, 1979 Notre Dame 35, Houston 34 0:00 at Cotton Bowl Nov. 14, 1992 Notre Dame 17, Penn State 16 0:20 at Notre Dame Oct. 21, 2006 Notre Dame 20, UCLA 17 0:27 at Notre DameSource: Associated PressCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times