A Punch Of Hughes

SOUTH BEND, IN - Those weren't the customary boos resonating throughout Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. That was the new Robert Hughes cheer, as another piece to the Irish's offensive puzzle looks to have emerged. Last weekend head coach Charlie Weis found his quarterback in Jimmy Clausen. With the freshman Hughes, it now looks like he may have found his running back.

Hughes carried the ball 17 times for 110 yards, including an impressive 13-yard touchdown run in the Irish's (2-9) 28-7 victory over Duke (1-10), on a rainy afternoon. He also added a shifty 33-yard run in the fourth quarter, the second-longest rushing play for the Irish from scrimmage this season.

Every time Hughes touched the ball, the home crowd got into it by yelling his last name.

"I was very impressed with him, and I thought he ran hard and added some punch to their offense," Duke head coach Ted Roof said.

A punch that Weis probably should've been throwing in flurries since the Michigan State game, where Hughes ran for eight yards on his first-career carry, later added a 17-yard run, and also scored his first-career touchdown.

Hughes came into the game with just 48 yards rushing on 18 carries. But in minimal duty, the 5-foot-11, 238-pound Chicago product did what other Notre Dame runners haven't done this season. That is break tackles, and push the pile, and that's what he did against Duke.

Weis might not have even hit Duke with the Hughes punch if starting tailback James Aldridge wouldn't have rolled his ankle in the first quarter, or if the weather was better. Now Weis has to decide who to feature in the season finale next Saturday at Stanford.

"We said that -- we follow the weather, you know," Weis said. "I always follow the weather. And you know, they said it was going to be mid 40s and potential drizzle and snow. And you know, really, Robert's game is ramming it down your throat."

That's what Hughes did.

"He got a head of steam going, and once he got going, I just started feeding him," Weis said. "That was one of the questions somebody asked me early this week, I forget who it was, but once you get a hot hand -- well, somebody asked me a question about a senior; in this case it happened to be a freshman. So you keep on rolling and just keep on giving it to him."

That's what Weis should do against the Cardinal. Keep feeding Hughes, regardless of the weather or the other running backs' health. He continually carried Duke tacklers on his back, normally made the first guy miss, and showed great agility for his size.

Freshman Armando Allen complimented Hughes's boom with some zoom, as a bunch of young players contributed in Notre Dame's only home win of the season.

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Allen added 42 yards rushing on nine carries, as the Irish ran for a season-best 220 yards against the Blue Devils.

Clausen played well for a second week in a row, completing 16-of-32 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns. Dropped passes were a problem again, or Clausen's numbers would've been even more impressive. Speaking of impressive, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Westlake Village, Calif. product matched his career-high from last week in touchdown passes, and did not throw an interception for the second-straight game.

One of Clausen's touchdown passes was a 25-yard throw tossed high in the air and hauled in by classmate Duval Kamara. The other two, a 25-yard pass to David Grimes, and a nine-yard pass to John Carlson had a lot of zing on it, as it appears all of Clausen's injuries are behind him.

Sophomore Dan Wenger made his first-career start at center in place of injured fifth-year senior John Sullivan, and he and the rest of the Irish offensive line, who all return next fall, turned in its best performance of the season. Clausen was rarely pressured, and the Irish rolled up 238 yards in the first half, taking a 14-0 lead to the locker room. In seven other games this season, Notre Dame failed to even reach 238 yards.

On defense, freshman Ian Williams made his first career start at nose tackle, and classmates Brian Smith and Kerry Neal got the nod at the outside linebacker spots. All of them each had three tackles, helping the defense nearly pitch a shutout. Duke scored with just over a minute remaining against walk-ons and reserves, as Weis tried to get in as many seniors as possible on Senior Day.

Granted this production from the freshmen was all against a Duke team whom very much resembled what the Irish had looked like through the first 10 games of the season. But, slowly but surely, the Irish are putting a team together for 2008.

"Probably the most encouraging thing, and it wasn't just the seniors or freshmen, because we are talking about both ends of it right now," Weis began. "It was the fact that the team, who has had a lot of adverse things happen this year, has just continued to practice and practice and practice like a team that expects to win, and the fruits of their labor showed up today with a victory."

With guys like Hughes, Clausen, Kamara, Wenger, Neal and the rest of the returning players, next season should bear a lot more fruit.

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