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BRADY CLUTCH

Times Staff Writer

Brady Quinn did it again, needing three zip-passes and 35 seconds to drive 80 yards for the touchdown that beat UCLA on Oct. 21.

Notre Dame senior lineman Bob Morton stood at his locker afterward, immaculately dressed, beads of victory sweat trickling down his forehead.

“What was Brady like on that last drive?” he was asked.

“What’s Brady like every single last drive?” Morton said. “Like Stanford last year, like Michigan State this year. He’s the same way every single time. Whether it’s the first or last drive, he’s composed, he’s a leader, and leaders lead. He’s grown up so much over the time I’ve been here, and I don’t mean to sound like an older brother or a parent or anything like that, but it’s to where whatever he says, I want to do.”

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Quinn in the clutch is as good as gold helmets.

If not for Quinn’s heroics since last November, Notre Dame would not be entering Saturday’s game against USC a virtual lock for its second straight Bowl Championship Series game worth a total of more than $30 million.

Rewind to last November at Palo Alto.

Lowly Stanford was about to knock Notre Dame out of a Fiesta Bowl berth, taking a 31-30 lead with 1 minute 46 seconds left. Quinn, though, marched his team 80 yards in six plays for the winning score. Stanford was so mad it bulldozed its stadium immediately after the game.

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“I truly believe that every game we enter into that we’re going to win,” Notre Dame’s Captain Comeback explained. “That’s just how I’ve always grown up playing sports.”

And then there was Michigan State, at East Lansing, on Sept. 23, in the rain.

Notre Dame was down, 37-21, entering the fourth quarter.

Quinn started the game going two for six for eight yards but finished with five touchdowns in leading Notre Dame to its most stunning comeback since Joe Montana’s “Chicken Soup” victory in the 1979 Cotton Bowl.

“Until the zeros are across the board, we’re not going to lose the game,” Quinn said of his on-field mind-set. “Even at that point, maybe we just ran out of time. Really you have to have that sort of mentality, I think, with any type of competition you go through, not just football.”

UCLA pretty much secured Quinn’s legacy.

For much of the game, he was outplayed by UCLA’s backup, Patrick Cowan. Quinn, under duress from a relentless Bruins pass rush, was sacked five times.

When it mattered, though, Quinn never quivered.

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The pass sequence went: 21 yards to Jeff Samardzija, 14 to David Grimes, and 45 to Samardzija for the victory.

“It’s sort of the norm for him,” Grimes said of Quinn. “We kind of expect it.”

Lineman Morton remembers all retinas being in fixed positions at the start of that drive.

“When he stepped in the huddle a quiet came over us, and we were out there for business,” Morton said. “It’s a matter of, we’re down by four, we need to score a touchdown.”

And they did.

And what about the game-winning touchdown Quinn thought he scored last year against USC in South Bend? Quinn’s five-yard run with 2:04 left put Notre Dame ahead, 31-28, only to have it unraveled by Matt Leinart-to-Dwayne Jarrett on fourth down and the “Bush Push” ending of all endings.

Quinn’s only bobble this year was a big one -- three interceptions in a humiliating home loss to Michigan.

It probably cost Notre Dame any chance at the national title and Quinn a shot at the Heisman Trophy.

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Yet, had Quinn wallowed in the Michigan mire, the Irish might not be in the BCS position they’re in today, awaiting an invitation from the Rose, Sugar or Orange bowls.

That’s the thing about the good ones -- they operate in the present.

Montana must have had amnesia. Everyone remembers the pass he threw to Dwight Clark against Dallas to spark a San Francisco 49ers’ dynasty.

Few people remember Montana had three interceptions in that game -- and wasn’t afraid to risk a fourth.

“You have to be resilient just to be a quarterback,” said John Huarte, the last Notre Dame quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy. “One thing you can be sure of, bad things will happen. And when bad plays happen, guys react differently. You need a short memory.”

Quinn, it seems certain now, will not be the first Irish quarterback since Huarte, in 1964, to win college football’s most prestigious prize even though he has Heisman-worthy numbers. He holds 35 Notre Dame passing records and this season has passed for 3,004 yards and 32 touchdowns with only five interceptions.

From the second quarter against Michigan State on Sept. 23 to the first quarter of last week’s game against Army, Quinn threw 226 passes without an interception.

In a sometimes tumultuous career that has spanned Coach Tyrone Willingham’s firing and Coach Charlie Weis’ horn-blowing arrival, Quinn has stood tall in the pocket.

No, Quinn won’t win the Heisman. His hopes hinged on Michigan beating Ohio State and Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith falling on his face. Instead, Smith tossed four touchdowns in a 42-39 win and made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But Quinn has been good enough to win the Heisman any number of years -- just not this one.

“It takes a combination of factors, a lot of outside factors, a lot of things have to happen right to win the Heisman,” Huarte said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I would think Troy has the inside track based on that fabulous game on national television. Those are things you can’t control.”

The stars all aligned for Huarte, the former Santa Ana Mater Dei High star who played five minutes as a Notre Dame sophomore and 45 minutes as a junior before going on his trophy run in 1964.

So, Quinn won’t win. Neither did Terry Hanratty, Joe Theismann, Joe Montana, Tony Rice or Ron Powlus.

“If the criteria is, ‘Who is the best player on the best team?’ well, right now, we can’t match that,” Weis recently said. “But I’m obviously prejudiced toward Brady Quinn. I think there can’t be anyone in the country who means more to their football team than Brady Quinn means to Notre Dame.”

When it comes down to it, Quinn doesn’t want to be remembered at Notre Dame for his stats.

He wants his account ledger to read “competitor and a good leader.” Remember him for defining moments against Stanford, and Michigan State and UCLA.

Quinn says, “That says more about you as a person than anything else ... the way you’re able to go out there and compete and lead a group of guys who maybe at times aren’t feeling too good about themselves, or maybe at times are feeling too good about themselves.”

No one has ever questioned Quinn’s drive.

The question on the eve of USC:

Does he have one more left in him?

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In the spotlight

Brady Quinn has never beaten USC in three starts. Also, how Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart fared against Notre Dame during their Heisman Trophy-winning seasons at USC:

*--* Quinn vs. USC * 2003: 15 for 34, 168 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT (USC won, 45-14) * 2004: 15 for 29, 105 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT (USC won, 41-10) * 2005: 19 for 35, 264 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT (USC won, 34-31)

*--*

*--* Palmer vs. ND ’02 Leinart vs. ND ’04 COMP-ATT 32-46 24-34 YARDS PASSING 425 400 TD/INT 4-2 5-0 RESULT USC won, 44-13 USC won, 41-10

*--*

*

By the numbers

Notre Dame senior quarterback Brady Quinn says he doesn’t want to be remembered for his statistics, but he has put up solid numbers during his time with the Irish:

*--* Year Cmp. Att. Yds. TD Int. Team finish 2006 252 387 3,004 32 5 TBD 2005 292 450 3,919 32 7 9-3, lost Fiesta Bowl, 34-20 2004 191 353 2,586 17 10 6-6, lost Insight Bowl, 38-21 2003 157 332 1,831 9 15 5-7, no bowl game Totals 892 1,522 11,340 90 37

*--*

Sources: ESPN.com; cfbdatawarehouse.com


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