Coach Tyrone Willingham said after Thursday's practice that recruiting is very important to his program and that the team was able to get a lot done despite the absence of most the staff. "We had our two G.A.'s (graduate assistants) with us and that spreads it out a little more," said Willingham. "But you know we've got to balance both, recruiting is important to us and we've got to get out on the road and see these young people or they feel like you're not giving them any attention – so we've got to do that. But, no, we were able to get a lot done. I think our guys know our format and we've had some subtle adjustments to make this week, because it is a bye week, to make it a little bit different, just to change it up for them a little bit so it's not the same old routine."
Willingham said one area they have focused on this week has been the offensive line. He said he's seen some improvement from his line. "I think we're getting closer. I think the last couple of weeks we've got closer to a consistent group lining up and having a chance to learn each other and start to play and I think that's kind of reflected in the way we've played a little bit. I think we're starting to play better."
The running game in particular is an area the Irish need to improve. Willingham reaffirmed his commitment to running the football. "It's a focus of every practice because we're a believer in that. Yes, we want to throw the ball, but at some point in my life here, I want to make sure we throw the ball for 300 yards a game and run it for 200 yards. Everybody goes – ah, that's a lot of yards. Yes it is, but then that's the goal. That's where we want to get to one day. Running a football is important because it makes you a physical football team and when you are physical, that's your best chance to win."
Starting right guard Sean Milligan has sat out the last two games and hasn't practiced this week. Willingham says he doesn't know if Milligan will play against Pittsburgh. "That I don't know. That will be a shame if he is not able to come back but we're just going to live week to week, day to day, and see what happens."
The Notre Dame team was pretty animated today on the field. Lots of chatter was heard from the team and Willingham was asked if his team was having fun again. "I would like to believe that every day is kind of a fun practice. There are segments of every day where our guys have a chance to see something that is humorous and see something that kind of brings our team together. We did scrimmage some today and there are some other things we did also. They kind of have a tendency to bring your team together."
The Irish will face Pittsburgh in their next game and face the deadly combination of Rob Rutherford and Larry Fitzgerald. Willingham was generous in his praise for both players. "I have not gone back to look at last year's film to make that direct comparison. There is no question they are asking him to do things you ask a big-time quarterback to do. They put a lot of responsibility on him and they have the system that really throws the ball down the field. It's one of those few systems that you see a lot of other people do things, a lot of short game mixed in there, some throws down the field, but they really stretch the field on you. And that's something you ask a big-timer to do along with the help of the offensive line."
Willingham is also impressed with Fitzgerald. He was asked to talk about a certain catch but Willingham talked about a lot of the great things he's done. "He's made so many good catches, it's like which catch do you talk about - or which one in the corner? This guy is really unbelievable, I mean, he's doing some great things. I was watching one of the highlights of him last week and you're sitting there as a coach saying, ‘quarterback, don't you dare throw that ball' – and he's triple covered – and it's like he's the only guy there and he comes away with it. There was another one down on the goal line and he is double covered and he makes the catch. And there is another one, there were three (defenders) and he goes up amongst three guys and it was almost like watching the Charles Rogers catch we had last year. He's real talented."
The Irish will have to find a way to slow down Pittsburgh's passing game but Willingham also said his team has to shut down their running game. "As always, the key is going to be their running game. Because, even on a quarterback's best day, he's probably going to complete seven out of ten--on his best day. So that means if that third one, that one that is incomplete, is on a third down, you're off the field. But if you have a run game that is a good solid run game, that averages that three point something every time you run it, you're always in a position to get a first down and that's what makes the pass game so critical. Now you have to defend runs so you bring people up and all of a sudden you throw, you have to back people out. It's that combination that makes it so tough. When you have to defend only one, then you can do that – most defenses today are good enough to do that."
The Irish have been missing playmakers on both offense and defense. Willingham was asked what his team has been lacking since the departure of Shane Walton and Arnaz Battle. "What you are missing, I think, is emotional leadership--leadership and confidence. Those are things that those guys gained through experience. Shane's story is a fantastic story. You talk about, if I'm correct, walking-on in soccer. And really establishing himself in that program in a short amount of time, then deciding to walk-on right into the football program. You have to have confidence to do that to become a starter and a player. That confidence is often transferred as a leader to other players. So other players start to walk like Shane--tough to do, but they do it and then you play at a different level. We're that much away from having that kind of player in a lot of places."
The Irish will return to the practice field on Tuesday to prepare for their game against Pittsburgh.