I listed this Saturday's matchup with Washington as the 11th toughest on the Irish slate. That slotting won't prove true as the Huskies, losers of 14 consecutive contests entering the season, will not only bring a battle-tested squad to South Bend, but one that knows it can compete at the highest level on a given Saturday.
Below is a look at six storylines for Saturday's matchup in South Bend
A hard-fought opening week loss to LSU (31-23) provided the requisite pats on the back for a Washington program at the tail end of a 15-game losing streak. The Huskies, for the first time in program history, then took on a non-FBS opponent, welcoming (a decent) Idaho Vandals team to Seattle to snap the program's 15-game losing streak in a 42-23 victory.
The following week, as you know by now if you're a subscriber to a college football website, the Huskies shocked the Pac-10, South Bend, the state of California, and the college football world with a 16-13 home upset of the USC Trojans.
Consider future Huskies opponents officially warned:
"I think it'll be really easy especially with the attention-getter," said Weis of preparations for a Washington team that defeated the formidable Men of Troy. "It's pretty easy with that attention getter."
Predictably, Washington followed the program's biggest victory since 2001 with a humbling 34-14 defeat at Stanford – par for the course for a team on the upswing, but is by no measure a finished product.
The Irish Can Relate
The Huskies notably surrendered 321 rushing yards to the Cardinal last Saturday. This on the heels of 250 rushing yards yielded to the Trojans and a respectable 149 (though at 5.1 yards per carry) afforded to LSU in the opener.
A rushing defense that ranked 117th last season while allowing more than 240 yards per contest (including a season-best 252 on the ground by the Irish in Seattle) has regressed through September after an acceptable start vs. the Tigers.
Washington has allowed its 2009 opponents 5.8 yards per carry, 195 yards per contest, and its three FBS opponents 23 rushes in excess of 10 yards. With the expected return of half back Armando Allen; the reemergence of junior Robert Hughes and the inclusion of the successful Wildcat formation, Notre Dame should find running room vs. the improved but still vulnerable Huskies front seven.
Hart and Sark the Scouts
New Huskies head man Steve Sarkisian was lauded for his game-week preparation against his former boss, USC coach Pete Carroll. Sarkisian spent seven years in the USC program, and during his time as the Trojans quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator, and assistant head coach, he helped guide Southern Cal's offense to a 6-1 record vs. the Irish (Carroll, Sarkisian, and USC dropped a 2001 decision to ex-Irish head man Bob Davie in South Bend).
Likewise, new Irish defensive line coach Randy Hart boasts 20 years of coaching experience in the Washington program. As the Washington D-Line coach in '08, Hart tutored eight of the Huskies 11 contributing defensive linemen on this year's squad and faced the veteran Huskies offensive line in practice every day.
"We've been getting as much information as we can, and the players have been going to him, too," Weis offered Thursday.
Tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, areas to exploit: Hart has been able to share each with his new employer.
With Sarkisian's installation of the Trojans' offensive schemes in Seattle, there won't be many secrets on the field for either side.
Best of the Best
In Thursday's preview of the Huskies offensive personnel, I mentioned that Washington junior QB Jake Locker ranked among the best overall football players the Irish will face in 2009. Likewise, Washington's defense will encounter far-and-away the best passer they'll see this season in Irish signal-caller Jimmy Clausen.
The Huskies boast a pass defense that enters the game ranked 41st in the nation (for the sake of comparison, Notre Dame is currently slotted at No. 106 against the pass), but LSU (90); Southern Cal, playing with its back-up quarterback (67); and Stanford (83) are a few tiers below the Irish in terms of moving the ball (and scoring) through the air.
The Irish need not throw for 300 yards to beat Washington Saturday...but they do need to attack the Huskies vertically to allow the running game to operate at peak efficiency.
In the Irish season-opener, NBC color commentator Pat Haden mentioned that Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick was likely the best QB that Notre Dame would face in 2009.
That of course, has already been proven false (Michigan's Tate Forcier to date), but it struck me as an odd comment at the time as well as Washington and Jake Locker were making a trip east to South Bend (for an NBC broadcast) later in the season.
Locker is one of the most dangerous college quarterbacks in the nation and is evolving into a top pro prospect as well. After rushing for 986 yards as a freshman in a read-option offense, Locker has embraced Sarkisian's USC-influenced attack and has transformed into a pocket passer, attempting 136 passes while rushing for just 74 yards through four contests.
But the still-dangerous Locker remains the Huskies best weapon on 3rd and short (as well as 3rd and medium-yardage, for that matter) and is easily the team's most talented player.
Elusive, fast, and powerful at 6'3" 226 pounds, Locker represents a tough individual assignment on both designed rolls and standard scrambles from the pocket. The Irish defense has struggled mightily to tackle in space this season and that weakness could be exposed by Locker who can escape pressure, extend the play, and turn Notre Dame Stadium into a sandlot against.
The dynamic Irish offense has absorbed several key injuries in the season's opening month. One will likely linger (Clausen's turf toe); another put the squad in jeopardy last Saturday (Armando Allen's ankle); and a third (senior James Aldridge's shoulder) threw an early monkey-wrench into the senior's final-season transformation fro half back to fullback.
The loss of wide receiver Michael Floyd (broken clavicle vs. Michigan State) cannot be overcome by an individual on the Irish roster, but the team's backfield appears ready to return to relative health, and the upcoming bye week will play a key role in the healing process.
"We're putting all of our eggs in one basket to get to that point (the Bye week)," Weis admitted when asked about his approach to the final game of the season's "first half."
"We can worry about being dinged up next week. I think that's the right perspective for us to be taking. If you get to the Bye at 4-1; it's a totally different scenario than if you get to the Bye at 3-2.
"They (the players) know it. The whole attitude and everything (changes) going into the Bye week…we don't have time to worry about bumps and bruises this week."
Look for an improved team tackling effort Saturday to ensure an upbeat Bye week for the 4-1 Irish.