0-2 Huskies seek Golden Dome in search of a Charm

Notre Dame week is usually an easy gig. When you're talking about an upcoming match with the Fighting Irish – rife with the Blue-and-Gold glare and the bombs of Rockne bursting in air- these things usually write themselves.

Washington (0-2) at Notre Dame (2-1)
Notre Dame Stadium - Notre Dame, IN (80,795/Grass)
Saturday, September 25 - 12:35 PM (PDT) – NBC National TV
Series All-time: Notre Dame leads, 4-0-0
Last Meeting: October 12, 1996 – Notre Dame 54, Washington 20
Line: Notre Dame by 10

Traditions jostle to be counted. Forty Hall-of-Fame players, eleven national titles, seven Heisman trophy winners, five Hall-of-Fame coaches, Four Horsemen, three Outland Award winners, two raised arms of Touchdown Jesus, and one Gipper (who may have climbed a pear tree as a child, for all we know).

No wonder infrequent visitors to this Mecca get wide-eyed, which is pretty much what happened to the last Husky team that tried to lay siege on the Golden Dome.

But there is another tradition that Washington wants to continue over everything else when the usual sold-out throng (175 consecutive and counting) welcomes them to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

They have never lost to a Tyrone Willingham-coached team.

"No, I haven't fared too well against them," Willingham recalls of his days on the Farm, where his Stanford teams went 0-5 against the Huskies. "There was probably about three occasions we had them beat and let them slip out."

"I'm very hopeful this will be the charm."

Notre Dame has certainly led a more charmed existence that Washington the past two weeks, hanging a 28-20 whoopin' on Michigan at home and then hanging on for 31-24 win over Michigan State in East Lansing. Willingham has his team on a high, but warns his favored Irish to not overlook a Husky side that, for all its foibles in ‘defending' the run last Saturday, fell about 60 inches short of a miracle victory.

"Their record is deceiving," suspects Willingham. "They've played some very good football ... (the 0-2 record) can create a mindset that they're not as skilled as they are."

"If we can get past that issue, then we can deal with the actual scheme."

Washington, of course, is simply searching for a win. They couldn't find one at home, and now face two straight away from the friendly confines. "It has been awhile since we have had a big road win," Husky coach Keith Gilbertson understates. "We have had some tough road trips, and been to some landmark places like Miami and Notre Dame."

"It would be nice to win one of those games."

At this point it would be nice for Washington to win ANY game. And Saturday would be simply charming. Just ask Tyrone Willingham.

TEAM STATS:  25.3 points, 325.7 yards 
             (106.3 rush, 219.3 pass)
RUSHING: Darius Walker 57-213-2 TD (3.7), long 19
         Ryan Grant 15-75-1 TD (5.0), long 19             
PASSING: Brady Quinn 47-91-4 (.516), 658 yards, 4 TD 
RECEIVING: Rhema McKnight 11-134-1 TD (12.2), long 54
           Maurice Stovall 10-122-0 TD (12.2), long 49
           Matt Shelton 4-169-2 TD (42.2), long 53

After consecutive losses to the Michigan schools a year ago, offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick bequeathed the quarterbacking reins from Carlyle Holiday to then-18 year old Brady Quinn, becoming one of only six true freshmen to start a Division 1-A NCAA game in 2003. Quinn's 9/15 TD/INT ratio certainly showcased his youth, though he threw for 1,800 yards on the year. "Brady really had to learn on the run," Diedrick recalls. "By the end, I thought he had a better understanding of what we were looking for from our quarterback." The sophomore is still prone to throw it to the other guys, but with a return of a solid running game in their two straight wins – Notre Dame mustered just 11 yards rushing in their season opening defeat at BYU – he's becoming less of a question and more of an answer. Quinn also rushed for his first career touchdown last Saturday.

Juniors Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall give the Irish a solid 1-2 punch at wide receiver, combining for 109 catches over 15 games. Stovall began the week in a walking boot, his status at press time uncertain – so 6-5 sophomore Jeff Samardzija or the 6-3 Holiday, now a wide-out, wait in the wings just in case. Senior Matt Shelton posted a personal best 123 yards receiving against the Spartans, and owns a gaudy career average of 31.5 yards per grab with three touchdowns. Junior tight end Anthony Fasano caught four passes for 60 yards in the loss at Provo, and has 22 career receptions.

Notre Dame hasn't fully replaced Julius Jones' 1,268 yard season of 2003, averaging just over 100 yards per game on the ground – but they're getting there. After looking at the Maurice Drew show on film, 5-11 true freshman Darius Walker could be excused for chomping at the bit.

Walker, an 18-year old, powered for 115 yards and two scores in the upset over Michigan and tallied a state-record 46 touchdowns in his senior season at Lawrenceville (GA) Buford. The Irish do boast a returning 1,000-yard back in senior Ryan Grant (1,085 yards in 2002). Grant missed the BYU opener, and only saw limited action the past two weeks with a troublesome hamstring. He has 14 career touchdowns, and figures to get a few more carries in potentially his first start of the season.

Sophomore center John Sullivan is Notre Dame's only new starter on the offensive line, but is so highly touted that last year's starter Bob Morton was moved to guard. Sophomore tackle Ryan Harris was a freshman All-American a year ago, and senior Mark LeVoir played every down last season except for the fourth quarter against Stanford.

GAME OUTLOOK: Gee now, an experienced front line ... a fitter Ryan Grant ... an exciting freshman in Darius Walker ... last week's UCLA/UW game film ... ya think Notre Dame is going to try and run it?

2003 STATS:     21.3 points, 307.3 yards 
                  (81.0 rush, 226.3 pass)
TACKLES/TFL:    Mike Goolsby 31/1.0
                Brandon Hoyte 19/4.0
                Tom Zbikowski 18/1.5    

PASSES DEF/INT: Preston Jackson 3/1
                Derek Landri 3/0
                Mike Goolsby 3/0
SACKS:          Justin Tuck 3.0
                Derek Curry 2.0
                Kyle Budinscak 1.0 

Everything starts up front for the Irish defense – and it begins with senior end Justin Tuck. Tuck needs just one more sack to surpass Kory Minor as Notre Dame's all-time leading scalper. The All-American candidate exploded on the scene in 2003, setting a school record with 13.5 sacks. Fifth-year senior Kyle Budinscak is in his third year starting on the opposite end, and promising sophomore Vic Abiamiri will rotate in. Nose guard Derek Landri has already swatted down three passes at the line-of-scrimmage - potentially a harbinger for side-armer Casey Paus.

Senior Derek Curry is the mainstay of the Irish linebacker corps. Curry, a three-year starter, has a fumble recovery and an interception to go with his two sacks. He's joined by the two leading tacklers, Brandon Hoyte and Mike Goolsby. Hoyte took over for Goolsby a year ago when the latter had to redshirt due to injury - now the seniors have combined for 50 tackles and three forced fumbles in the Irish 2-1 start.

The secondary was hardest hit by graduation, but early returns from the new group have been positive. Sophomore strong safety Tom Zbikowski was named the national defensive Player of the Week for his bit of larceny against the Spartans, ripping the ball from MSU's Jason Teague and taking it 75 yards for a score. Zbikowski would force another fumble and add an interception to his career day. Senior Quentin Burrell is the elder statesman, fourth on the team in tackles in 2003 and again this year. Corners Preston Jackson and Dwight Ellick took similar routes through the ranks to become full-time starters in their fourth seasons. Jackson has three career interceptions and Ellick recorded his first-ever theft against Michigan.

GAME OUTLOOK: Notre Dame has allowed a paltry 2.4-yards per rush, though Michigan State did have some success, grinding for 165 yards. It's a basic but opportunistic defense, forcing 11 turnovers in three games. Three of the team's eight sacks have come from their linebackers, and Tuck is one of the best at coming off the edge. For all the trouble the Husky offense has had with the passing game, the line has only allowed two sacks, so it looks to be a fair match-up - provided Washington doesn't get stage fright. That could be the biggest worry.

PLACEKICKING:  D.J. Fitzpatrick 2-3 FG (long 23), 
               10-10 XP
PUNTING:       D.J. Fitzpatrick 22-40.5 (long 56), 
               .273 inside the 20
KICK RETURNS: Chase Anastasio 5-19.6 (long 40), 0 TD
              Maurice Stovall 2-14.5 (long 16), 0 TD

PUNT RETURNS: Carlyle Holiday 10-12.0 (long 21), 0 TD

Senior D.J. Fitzpatrick was a walk-on backup last season when kicker Nick Setta unexpectedly went down kicking off against Pittsburgh. Suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Fitzpatrick missed five out of his first nine three-point tries but closed with a bang, hitting his last eight – including a 40-yard game winner against Navy as time expired. He extended that streak to ten to open the 2004 campaign before missing last week in East Lansing. Fitzpatrick has a career-best of 50 yards, and doubles as a 40-yard per boot punter.

Chase Anastasio has a 40-yard kickoff return to his credit, and former QB Carlyle Holiday handles the punt return duty. Anastasio and Maurice Stovall are both in their first seasons handling kicks, but it wouldn't surprise if Holiday teamed with Anastasio should Stovall be unavailable.

GAME OUTLOOK: Neither special teams appear very special, though Washington did force a fumble on a kickoff last week. Notre Dame has yet to kick a touchback, begging for a dose of Charles Frederick. Washington has zero punt return yards in two games, and continues to struggle with their own punting game. The Irish allowed both a punt block and a kickoff return for scores against Michigan State, helping to make what should have been an easy victory closer.


Saturday looms sunny and 70 degrees for the 12:35 (PDT) kickoff. The "Notre Dame" team of Tom Hammond and Pat Haden will handle the NBC play-by-play ... Mike O'Hara, junior reserve WR from Bellevue (Newport), is the only Washingtonian on Notre Dame's roster ... In two previous visits to South Bend, the Huskies have been outscored 100-20 in two lopsided losses. And lest the 424-yard effort by the Bruins is considered an aberration, recall that Washington gave up 381 yards on the ground to Cal a year ago, and another 397 to the Irish in the 54-20 debacle of 1996 ... It will be old-time Vandal week on the sidelines Saturday. Both Notre Dame coordinators Bill Diedrick and Kent Baer held similar posts together at Idaho during the 1986 season. Their boss? Keith Gilbertson ... Seems sort of odd, but if USC beats Stanford on the Farm this week, it will be the first time the Trojans have opened a season 4-0 in nine years ... The Oregon offense is a woeful 2-6 in the red zone after two games. That statistic is bound to improve this week, though – the Ducks welcome a downhearted Idaho to Autzen Stadium ... Take away Michael Braunstein (2-for-2), UCLA's Justin Medlock (3-for-3) and ASU's Jesse Ainsworth (8-for-9), and the rest of the PAC-10 is a woeful 11-for-29 in field-goal opportunities ...
Rick Samek can be reached at rsamek1@comcast.net

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