Dawgman.com Diary - Notre Dame

It seems almost cliche to have players talking about winning a game for their coach, but when Washington takes on Notre Dame this week that cliche takes on some added significance. When the Fighting Irish roll into Seattle, Tyrone Willingham was supposed to be leading their charge. Now he's the Huskies' head coach and doing everything he can to get his new players ready to take on his old team.

"Sure. I would love to win against Notre Dame and have him go home happy, smiling," senior linebacker Joe Lobendahn said Monday. "Who wouldn't? You want to win every game you can. Every game is special, every game is big for us. I really want to win this game. Notre Dame is ranked in the top-20 and it would give us a big confidence boost."

But for the most part, the players are downplaying the significance of the hype surrounding the game, even if it is a lot bigger than the normal sideshow that accompanies a big football game like the one about to be played Saturday at Husky Stadium. In hearing Willingham talk about it himself Monday, that's exactly the way he would want it.

"That's definitely on our minds, but he told us to play this game just like it's our next game," fullback Ty Eriks said about the hype of playing Notre Dame and the circumstances that saw Willingham released from his position at Notre Dame and his subsequent move to Washington. "When you think about things like that, there's stuff that gets put in your mind that doesn't need to be there on a Saturday. We just need to do our job, but we also want to win this for coach and for this team. He's done great things for our program up to this point and we know that he's going to continue to do great things."

"I respect Coach Willingham and I'm going to play every game as hard as I can for him, but I'm also going to play every game as hard as I can for my teammates," added offensive lineman Rob Meadow. "Any implications between Notre Dame and him being released, that's between him and Notre Dame. For us, it's us playing another really good school. I'm not caught up in the hype. It's not necessary. There's enough going on that I don't need to get caught up in the rivalry thing that the media is creating."

But the players are already sensing that this is not just another week at the office for Willingham. "I think he's anxious and excited," said Lobendahn, when asked about the mood of his head coach. "He can't wait for it. What he tells us is not to fall for the hype. It's Washington versus Notre Dame, a great school with great tradition, but it's just us versus them - nothing else."

As much as for anything else, the Huskies would love to erase the 38-3 shellacking Willingham and the Irish put on them last year and win the first game ever for UW in their 6-game series so far with Notre Dame. They are tentatively scheduled to have another home-and-home series starting in 2008.

"Any time you lose to somebody the year before it puts a chip on your shoulder," said Eriks. "We can't get too excited or overwhelmed with all the things that are going on. We just have to go out there, play the way we know we can play and get the job done."

The feelings might even be stronger for Meadow, having played his high school football at a catholic school - De La Salle - in Concord, California. "It's kind of hard not to be going to a catholic school," he said when asked if he followed the Irish while at DLS. "Our fight song was Notre Dame's fight song. But I've always been more of a pro football fan.

"Last year when we were at Notre Dame, there was that aura there and I got caught up in it a little bit. I mean, who hasn't seen the movie Rudy! But this year it's my senior year. They are coming to our house. I'm over it. I respect them, they are a good team and we're never going to overlook them, but it's one of those things where I'm a lot more prepared to play them than last year."

For the newer players that didn't get to experience the loss at Notre Dame - like tight end Johnie Kirton - the reasons for winning against the Irish are boiled down to their essentials. "That doesn't affect me," he said when asked about winning for Willingham because of the circumstances at Notre Dame. "I don't know that much about it. My motivation is to shine when it really counts. This is a big game for us, and I'm willing to shine and I know that everyone else is too. I'm just excited to play."

And there is no question excitement is in the air when you walk around Montlake. A lot of that is fueled by Washington's 34-6 win over Idaho in a game where the Huskies were expected to struggle against the Vandals.

"That's what we needed going into this game," said Lobendahn. "Really, we were just hungry. We have confidence. I think everyone believes that we can win every game that we play, depending on our practice and how we prepare. I'm excited and I'm pretty sure that everyone else is excited to play. It was very important to get that win, it gives us a confidence boost going into this game against Notre Dame. Everyone believes that we can do something. It was past due, it was a must-win for us."

For Meadow - who never lost in high school - getting back in the win column was a welcome change, and it was also a valuable lesson learned for the senior from San Francisco. "It makes you appreciate just how hard it is to win," said Meadow. "When I was in high school I worked hard and we won. I never took it for granted, but I never understood just what a blessing it was. Last year was a reality check. It made me realize that just showing up and trying somewhat hard just wasn't going to cut it."

Kirton wants wins, and even went through a position switch to show his teammates how badly he wants success. Funny how scoring your first touchdown of your young career helps ease the pain of knowing you may never get a hand-off from the backfield. "Slowly but surely I'm leaving that," he said when asked if he's fully embraced the idea of playing tight end. "It'll never completely be gone, but just showing me the potential that I have, it makes it easier to continue with the transition."

Meadow and Eriks know all about taking one for the team. The fifth-year fullback seemingly has been in a different position every year in the program, and Meadow is playing out of position at left tackle. "I lead by example," said Meadow. "If I talk it up, it's usually just to the offensive line. It's something I feel that anyone on this team would do. They would make the same sacrifice. That's what big-time football is all about. Last year there were no expectations and we played to that level. This year, we have players that have played and have experience and that's something you've got to embrace. If you don't embrace that, you shouldn't be playing college football. It's a welcome change."

"It's full-circle," added Eriks, noting that he's back at the position where he first started. "It's a great feeling, it's a long time coming. It's been a tough road, but I think it's the road that's really served me best. It was worth it." Eriks has also earned his first start of 2005 and plans on taking out his aggression on the Irish. "I definitely am going to take my job, step up to the plate and play my hardest," he said. "We've watched film and I've seen things I can do to be successful. We're going to go out there and play some smashmouth football on Saturday."

With all the relative success Kirton has had so far through three games of his second year with the Huskies (third-leading receiver on team), Washington fans are anticipating big things for the big man from Mill Creek. "It's been a process and everybody that's done it, in the beginning learning the playbook in two weeks, knows it's not an easy task," said Kirton. "I'm still learning the schemes and plays, but the transition has been good. Just as long as I continue to get help from the coaches and my fellow linemen...it's going good.

"I've improved a ton, I've improved with every play that I've made. When I'm blocking, I've got to keep my elbows in and strike. My weight alone can move somebody, but if I can learn to add the strike to it, I'll be that much more of a force."

With red zone scoring an issue, it's up to guys like Kirton and Eriks to help move piles for the ballcarrier. "You have to have low pad level and you've got to drive people out of the hole, because they are trying to fill the hole that you are trying to clear," Eriks said about his responsibilities. "It's really a one-on-one deal. Whoever has the low pad level that strikes and drives usually wins the block."

But the big boys up front do the lion's share of the load, even if it means getting a little bloody. Meeting up with Meadow, it's hard not to stare at a giant cut located at the top of the bridge of his nose. During practice week before the Cal game Meadow's chinstrap snapped off, and his facemask crashed down on his face. Voila! Big gash. "Every time I hit someone, it opens up again," he said. "It isn't going away for a while.

"I've gotten a couple of compliments," he adds with a smile. "People say it makes me look tougher, but I think my modeling career is in serious jeopardy."

But even slight disfigurement won't stop Meadow and company from making sure they do everything they can to win - even if it also means not getting their fair share of the spotlight. "That's not the important part," said Eriks. "We're all in there to win, that's the main goal. It's more about the win, putting it on the line and coming out victorious."

And despite two early losses, this team is still thinking big. Lobendhan is thinking about bowl games.

"Every game is crucial," he said.

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