SEATTLE - Some may say that Notre Dame did not prove much by battering a lowly Washington team 33-7 in Seattle on Saturday night, but the Irish proved the only real thing that they could.
Like Charlie Weis' Notre Dame squads from 2005 and 2006, this year's unit has shown that it will win the games that it is supposed to win. Now the Irish need to prove that they can win the big games when they are not double-digit favorites, but there was no opportunity for them to verify that against the winless Huskies.
Notre Dame was far from perfect, but the Irish took care of business and left the West Coast with their first road win of the season and a 5-2 record heading into the final five games.
The Irish offense was not dominant, but there are few better words to describe the effort of the Notre Dame defense. Notre Dame held the Huskies to just 26 rushing yards and 98 passing yards. Notre Dame did get any takeaways, but the Irish did force six three-and-outs and the Huskies did not cross midfield until their final drive against Notre Dame's second string.
While the Irish offense was inconsistent, it did manage 459 total yards, including 252 on the ground. James Aldridge led the Irish running game with 84 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries.
"That's a first in a while," Aldridge said of the two scores. "I'm just thankful for Coach giving me the opportunity. I'm just happy. It felt good. I just try to get in where I fit in like I always say. I'm happy just fitting in my role."
Jimmy Clausen finished with just 201 yards, completing 14 of 26 passes with a touchdown and an interception. Michael Floyd was Clausen's top target, catching four balls - all in the first half – for 107 yards and a score.
And the Irish did something that Weis has preached about all year: Notre Dame started fast.
After winning the toss and deferring to the second half, the Irish defense forced Washington into a three-and-out to start the game. Notre Dame's offense struck right away with a three-play, 63-yard drive that took just over a minute. The march was capped with a 51-yard catch-and-run by Floyd on a quick pass from Clausen to give the Irish a 7-0 lead 2:25 into the game.
"I was really concerned and wanted to make sure that we didn't come out flat in the game," Weis said. "I put it on the coaches to be aggressive in play calls early in the game so we could get on top of them early. When you have a team that's wounded, if you let them hang around you can put yourself in a very vulnerable position. We felt that today it was important in the first quarter to get on top of them."
The Irish outgained the Huskies by 200 yards in the first half, 238-38. Notre Dame had 13 first downs to Washington's three. Huskies quarterback Ronnie Fouch completed just one of nine passes for five yards and was sacked twice in the first half. Terrance Dailey led the Washington offense with six carries for 19 yards.
Notre Dame built a 17-0 lead going into the half and came out just as quick after intermission. Clausen completed his first four passes after halftime, moving the ball 57 yards before Aldridge hammered it in from four yards out on the fifth play to give Notre Dame a 24-0 lead barely two minutes into the half.
Notre Dame got the ball again after Washington gained a single first down on its next possession. After a successful fake punt, the Irish drove inside the Huskies' 10-yard line, but an 18-yard sack on 3rd-and-goal pushed the Irish back to the Washington 23. Brandon Walker converted his second field goal of the day, this one from 42 yards to put Notre Dame up 27-0.
Armando Allen, who finished with 62 yards on 15 carries, started Notre Dame's next drive by gaining 27 yards on six carries before Aldridge ate up the final 18, including a 3-yard score with 12:33 remaining in the game. Weis gave new kicker David Ruffer a chance to get on the field, but the sophomore's extra point dinged off the upright, leaving the score at 33-0.
Notre Dame forced Washington into its final three-and-out of the game and then sent in all of its subs. With 6:13 to play the Huskies took over on their own 31 and Fouch completed six of 10 passes for 69 yards, including a six-yard touchdown to D'Andre Goodwin with less than three minutes to go.
"It's good to get it out of the way more than anything else," Weis said of the Irish's first road win. "The first two road games this year we turned the ball over seven or eight times and when you do that on the road it's tough."
The Irish caught a huge break on their second drive of the game when a Clausen interception was negated by an iffy pass interference call. Golden Tate capped a seven-play, 70-yard drive with a 21-yard touchdown scamper on a third-down end around to give Notre Dame a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter. The touchdown was set up back a fake end around on second down.
"I guess the coaches upstairs saw that there wasn't anyone out there so they went ahead and gave it to me," Tate said.
The Huskies picked up a pair of first downs on their third drive, but Harrison Smith got a sack on third down and Washington had to punt for the third time and the Irish took over at Washington's 38-yard line. Notre Dame's third drive stretched into the beginning of the second quarter.
The Irish were put in a hole after Tate was tackled for a 10-yard loss on another reverse. Notre Dame went for it on 4th-and-19 and Clausen was picked off by Nate Williams on the Washington 1-yard line. The pass was bobbled by Kyle Rudolph before being intercepted by Williams and it turned out to be better than an Irish punt.
"You couldn't throw the ball any better," Weis said. "That's just an interception."
Washington had to punt from its own end zone after a drop by Devin Aguilar on third down and the Irish took over at the Huskies' 25-yard line. On the first play, Clausen hit Floyd for 12 yards on a slant, but the Irish failed to convert another first down and had to settle for a 28-yard Walker field goal to make the score 17-0 with 11:10 remaining before the half.
The Irish defense forced its fourth three-and-out on Washington's next possession and took over at their own 40-yard line on the punt. Notre Dame picked up three first downs, but were hurt by a holding penalty and again failed to convert a 4th-and-19, giving the Huskies the ball at their own 30. The teams traded possessions as the half expired.