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Cornerback Terrail Lambert turned his season—and possibly his college career around—in that game. Coming off a brutal performance against Michigan, which had crushed the Irish the week before, Lambert, a junior, had a pair of critical interceptions against the Spartans. "When I got here, I was afraid to put him on the field," Irish coach Charlie Weis admitted this week. Now he is loath to take him out. Lambert had another interception last Saturday; his promotion over the erratic Ambrose Wooden was part of a minor shake-up of the defense, which took place during the bye week preceding the UCLA game.
Weis also elevated Chris Frome to starter at defensive end, in place of Ronald Talley, who left the team on Oct. 12. Also benched was outside linebacker Mitchell Thomas, whose place was taken by senior Joe Brockington. Although the reconstituted unit looked alarmingly like its old self at times against the Bruins, yielding first-half touchdown passes of 54 and 36 yards, it bore down in the second half, holding UCLA to 75 total yards.
The Irish will be
heavy favorites in the four games before their Nov. 25 date at USC. The win
over the other team from Los Angeles drastically increases Notre Dame's chances
of playing in a BCS bowl. "You want blowouts; you want to prove a point to
the country," said strong safety Tom Zbikowski. "But no matter how it
looks, we'll take the win."
What else would you expect from a man whose egg-shaped physique spurred his mother to nickname him Thunder Thighs? Eight games into his college career, Hill has developed into one of the most punishing and durable runners in the game, and he's taken the sting out of the loss of Brian Calhoun, who left Madison after his junior season and was a third-round draft pick of the Lions last spring. Hill's 1,172 rushing yards are tops in the Big Ten and the most of any freshman in the country. And with 14 touchdowns he's the sixth-leading scorer in Division I A. "P.J.'s very explosive and very physical, but he's got great feet for a big guy," says Settle, a former NFL running back.
With 4.6 speed, Hill, a native of East Elmhurst, N.Y., who played at Brooklyn-Poly Prep, wasn't recruited heavily. His decision to attend Wisconsin over Syracuse and Buffalo raised a few eyebrows at home, but Hill liked the Badgers' reputation for churning out 1,000-yard rushers. He broke his left leg in August 2005, preventing him from backing up Calhoun last fall, but he fully recovered by the spring. Hill's development has been impressive, but Settle and the Wisconsin strength coaches still want him to improve his upper-body strength. "This is how my body is," Hill protests. "The strength is going to come, but I don't think it's my appearance that matters. Performance is all that matters to me."