A win over mighty USC would give Charlie Weis the signature victory that he has been looking for while also serving as the most tangible evidence that the program is indeed headed in the right direction. But a win over Washington would be almost as satisfying for fans who still feel like the program has been unjustly maligned in the wake of Tyrone Willingham's firing.
Many feel that the national media is responsible for much of the blame that was directed at Notre Dame. Others believe that Willingham did not stand up and take enough responsibility for the true reasons why he was fired and the circumstances around the situation. Still others are upset for purely football reasons and believe that Willingham left the Notre Dame football program in a difficult spot.
Whatever the exact reasons, it is clear that Oct. 25 is a date that will be circled on the calendars of many Irish fans.
The Huskies opened 2007 with a new hotshot quarterback in redshirt freshman Jake Locker and opened Willingham's third season in Seattle with back-to-back wins over Syracuse and Boise State. But Washington lost nine of their next 11 games to finish with a 4-9 record.
Despite the final record, the 6-3, 222-pound Locker surpassed some very high expectations. Locker was one of the highest rated quarterback in the Class of 2006 that also included Mitch Mustain, Matthew Stafford and Tim Tebow. While Locker has not reached Tebow's level, he did earn Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors and set a league record for rushing yards by a quarterback (986). If you take out the loss yardage from sacks, he rushed 1,133 yards and 13 touchdowns.
However, Locker was still far from a complete player. He threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14) and completed just 47.3% of his passes (155-328) for 2,062 yards. Locker worked to improve his passing and had an impressive spring capped by a 13-17, 159-yard performance in the spring game.
This summer Locker has had to fit in time to study his playbook around his wooden bat West Coast Collegiate Baseball League schedule. Locker was expected to be an early round Major League Baseball draft selection in 2006 had he decided to go that route and is playing center field for the Bellingham Bulls.
Locker has already demonstrated an ability to dominate a game offensively even without a consistent aerial attack, if he can indeed expand his game in 2008 he would be downright scary. In order for him to do that though, Locker will need for some young receivers to step up and be reliable.
The Huskies lost five seniors in Anthony Russo (49 receptions), Marcel Reece (39 rec.), Corey Williams (15 rec.), Cody Ellis (9 rec.) and Quintin Daniels (7 rec.). The two leading returners are sophomores D'Andre Goodwin (6-0, 170) and Curtis Shaw (5-10, 186). Together Goodwin and Shaw combined for 11 catches for 76 yards and zero touchdowns in 2007.
Goodwin is expected to be the number one wideout in 2008 and showed signs of being that in the spring game with seven catches for 109 yards. Washington offensive coordinator Tim Lappano has said that they will try to take advantage of Goodwin's athletic ability in the red zone. Shaw is a converted running back and is the only other returning wideout who has caught a ball in a college game.
Freshmen Anthony Boyles (6-3, 190) and Devin Aguilar (6-0, 195) enrolled in the spring and are expected to see plenty of playing time. It will be interesting to see how Willingham and Lappano will use incoming freshman Chris Polk (5-11, 200).
Polk was one of the Huskies biggest grabs in the latest recruiting season, snatching him away from USC in time for him to enroll in the winter session. Polk has the ability to play either receiver or running back and Lappano has said that he will try to use him in a way similar to the way the Trojans used Reggie Bush. Look for Polk to line up in the backfield, in the slot, at wide out and expect him to touch the ball 15-20 times on a variety of handoffs and pass plays.
With the graduation of last year's top running back, look for the Huskies to use a committee behind Locker. Louis Rankin graduated and took his team-high 1,294 yards with him. Sophomore Brandon Johnson (5-9, 207) is the only returning tailback with any carries after rushing for 202 yards and two touchdowns on 51 carries as a freshman.
According to Lappano, redshirt freshmen Willie Griffin (5-8, 200) and Brandon Yakaboski (6-0, 190) are still in the race to compete with Johnson. Junior Paul Horner (6-1, 239) and senior Luke Kravitz (6-0, 228) are listed as one-two on the depth chart at fullback after seeing considerable team in 2007.
No matter what happens at running back look for Locker to be the team's top running threat.
The Huskies will have some interesting options at tight end where senior Michael Gottlieb (6-5, 249) is back. Gottlieb had 12 catches for 136 yards last year, but will continue to be pushed by redshirt freshman Chris Izbicki (6-3, 249).
The wildcard in the race will be freshman Kavario Middleton. Middleton, who weighs in around 260 pounds, has been listed anywhere from 6-5 to 6-7 and is a football player in a basketball player's body. Scout ranked Middleton as the No. 3 tight end in the nation and the top player in the state of Washington. Middleton enrolled during the spring semester and the coaches are hoping that he can develop into a go-to guy for Locker and help alleviate some of the responsibilities of the receivers.
The Huskies seemed to be in good shape along the offensive line with four players with starting experience returning led by sixth-year center Juan Garcia (6-3, 315). But Garcia went down with a career-threatening Lisfranc injury to his left foot during the spring. There is a chance that Garcia will be back by midseason, possibly in time for the Notre Dame game, but until then junior Matt Sedillo (6-3, 320) will hold the job. Sedillo has appeared in two games during his career.
Returning starters up front include junior left guard Ryan Tolar (6-5, 321), senior left tackle Ben Ossai (6-6, 332) and senior right guard Casey Bulyca (6-6, 339). Junior Cody Habben (6-6, 316) will replace the only graduate from last year's group, Chad Macklin, at right tackle. Habben got plenty of reps at left tackle last year and injuries provided the second group of players with valuable practice time this spring, so depth should not be a major issue.
Locker led the Huskies to an average of 29.2 points (51st nationally) and 203.1 rushing yards per game (18th nationally) last year. If he has improved his passing skills to a respectable level and some key players step up at certain positions, Washington has a chance to be a truly potent offense. But until Locker proves that he is to be respected as a passer and the Huskies find those answers, they will have plenty of questions surrounding the offense.
With all of those question marks, the Huskies cannot expect to outscore every opponent, so they will need improvement from a defensive unit that surrendered more than 30 points on seven occasions last year. New coordinator Ed Donatell will lead that defense. Donatell has plenty of NFL experience and replaces Willingham's longtime assistant Kent Baer, who also served as coordinator at Notre Dame.
One of the first changes that Donatell made was to get some size at cornerback. Donatell moved senior Mesphin Forrester (6-2, 202) from strong safety, where he started 13 games in 2007, to corner. Donatell also tapped redshirt freshman Quinton Richardson (6-0, 200), who was a linebacker in high school, to start at the other corner.
Sophomores Nate Williams (6-0, 207) and Victor Aiyewa (6-1, 209) have Husky fans thinking back to the days of Tony Parrish and Lawyer Milloy at the safety spots. While the youngsters have a long way to go to fill those shows, they got some experience as freshmen and judging from their spring performances seem poised for breakout years.
Williams and Aiyewa are on the top of the depth chart now, but they won't be handed any positions as Washington returns seniors Jason Wells (6-2, 206) and Darin Harris (5-11, 208). Harris was named as Washington's Most Improved Defensive Player after the 2007 season, while Wells started the first five games of 2007 before being sidelined with a season-ending injury.
Also, keep an eye on 26-year-old junior Tripper Johnson (6-1, 210), who is finally on campus after signing his National Letter of Intent back in 2000. Johnson has spent the last eight years as a third baseman in the minor leagues after being selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round of the 2000 Major League Baseball Draft. After failing to raise above the Double-A level in eight years, Johnson decided to give football a shot again and could offer some help in the secondary.
Linebacker figures to be a position of strength for Washington as it returns a pair of senior starters in E.J. Savannah (6-1, 219) and Trenton Tuiasosopo (6-2, 243). Savannah led the team in tackles (111) from his weakside position and registered eight tackles and a sack in the spring game. But there could be some character issues surrounding Savannah, who was suspended for the first seven practices of the spring and reportedly broke the humerus bone in his arm after spring practice in an arm-wrestling match. Savannah figures to be back early in the season, so it seems like a safe bet that he'll be on the field against the Irish.
Tuiasosopo is the cousin of former UW quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo and fullback Zach Tuiasosopo. He started eight of the 13 games he played in at middle linebacker in 2007 and recorded 39 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss.
Junior linebacker Donald Butler (6-1, 242) filled in the middle when Tuiasosopo was out and if Donatell wants to install a 3-4 scheme, he has two inside guys with experience.
Look for sophomore Mason Foster (6-1, 218) and senior Chris Stevens (6-0, 215) to battle for playing time at the strong side when Savannah returns. The Huskies do have the linebacker depth to play a 3-4 defense if Donatell so chooses and with defensive line as one of the thinner positions they may do just that.
But the Huskies can't even think about playing a 3-4 if they don't develop an interior presence along the line. Washington returns just one starter on the defensive line from 2007, but that returner is senior defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim (6-4, 263), easily last year's most productive lineman. Te'o-Nesheim led the Huskies in sacks (8.5) and tackles for a loss (15) and can also play 3-technique in passing situations.
Senior Johnie Kirton (6-3, 296) has shifted from tight end to defensive tackle and could eventually give the Huskies that interior presence.
Junior Cameron Elisara (6-3, 289) has experience after playing in 12 games last year, but will need to be more productive in 2008 after recording just two stops in 2007. Redshirt freshmen Nick Wood (6-3, 299) and Tyrone Duncan (6-2, 278) will rotate at the tackle spots while junior De'Shon Matthews (6-4, 260) and senior Darrion Jones (6-2, 245) will provide depth at the ends.
The Washington defense is going to undergo some changes in 2008 and it will be interesting to see how the players take to those changes. Donatell has said that he wants to surprise opposing offenses and he may need to do that to stop them.
Washington will have to replace Rankin and Russo as returners in the kicking game and the Huskies are still looking for a replacement, but look for Polk and his cousin incoming freshman receiver Jordan Polk to get looks.
This matchup will definitely be one of the most anticipated games of the season and the Irish could be road favorites, but Locker's talent should not be overlooked. He is the kind of athlete that can take over games and he could hurt the Irish if he can keep them off balance with the run and the pass.