The Fundamentals – and Playbooks

It's been a rather historic first three games for Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis. To wit: no Fighting Irish first-year coach since Knute Rockne had ever won his first two "true" road games – until Charlie Weis. Rockne happened to beat Case Tech and Wabash, Weis only beat Pittsburgh and Michigan. Then Weis became only the third ND first-year coach in 93 years to lose his home opener when the Irish dropped a 44-41 overtime decision to Michigan State.

Notre Dame (2-1) at Washington (1-2)
Saturday, September 24 - 12:35 PM (PST) – ABC TV
Series All-time: Notre Dame leads, 5-0-0
Last Meeting: September 25, 2004 – Notre Dame 38, Washington 3
Line: Notre Dame by 13

Clearly, Weis preferred the feeling of the former. And he cut to the chase on Saturday, choosing to bypass the silver lining of his team's 21-point comeback by stating bluntly, "I feel that I didn't do a good job of keeping the distractions that come with (home openers). I didn't have the team focused enough to play with attention to detail, from the start of the game to the end. That's my responsibility."

And this week, he's taking immediate steps to restore order.

"Any time you lose a game you have to identify what you feel are the things to get your mistakes corrected the fastest," Weis spoke at his Tuesday press conference. "It almost always falls back to the same thing -- that if you're fundamentally sound, you're technically sound, you usually have a lot better chance for success."

"So what this week is really going to be about is us getting back to us fixing our own problems fundamentally and technically, and that's going to be our points of emphasis."

Weis had promised last week – again citing his wish to shun distractions - that "you won't get a word from me" with regards to this Saturday's oft-quoted "Ty Bowl". And other than offering the cursory "our coaching staff and our team have the utmost respect for Coach Willingham, his staff - and in addition, his team and their university," Weis kept his word on Tuesday – for a short while, anyhow. He even told the assembled media that if they were in the Sunday film room study, they'd know that his players "were only worried about the mistakes that were made on Saturday – there were a plethora of them."

Then Weis offered – with a chuckle - that he had gone through an earlier bit of a trouble involving the Huskies just after the Rick Neuheisel firing. "You know, Damon (Huard) and Lawyer (Milloy) were two of my favorites," Weis recalled. "And of course, they loved Washington."

"So I'm flying with my family for 10 days to go to Disney World, and two reporters called me up on a Thursday night and talked to me. They said ‘Damon and Lawyer said we should call you.' So we chat, and then I go to Disney World and come back. Next thing I know, I was all over the papers in New England, how I'm trying to leave and go to the University of Washington."

"(Bill) Belichick was really happy with me. And except for Damon and Laywer, I never in my life talked to anyone from Washington."

Weis also acknowledged keeping a piece of the past regime – and that it could be of some help this week.

"Well, it helps when you have the playbook," Weis said. "You know, the playbook that Kent (Baer) has, we have so, when they walk out the door, they can take everything else with them.

And though he stressed that he only used last year's tapes to look at "Personnel – I don't really care what Notre Dame ran last year nor what Washington was running," Weis did smile, "When you have a copy of it, you have a copy of it.

"Kind of helps a little bit when you know the foundation of the playbook."

Owning to Notre Dame's 5-0 dominance over Washington, perhaps the point might be moot. But only Saturday will tell how obsolete that playbook has – or will – become.

TEAM STATS:  33.3 points, 446.7 yards 
             (162.0 rush, 284.7 pass)

RUSHING: Darius Walker 72-320-1 TD (4.4), long 17
         Rashon Powers-Neal 14-60-3 TD (4.3), long 9
         Travis Thomas 8-40-0 TD (5.0), long 16

PASSING: Brady Quinn 70-117-2 (.598), 854 yards, 9 TD        
RECEIVING: Anthony Fasano 15-153-0 TD (10.2), long 24
           Jeff Samardzija 13-182-5 TD (14.0), long 31
           Maurice Stovall 12-220-1 TD (18.3), long 50

Ten returning starters, plus coach Weis' NFL reputation as one of the most innovative offensive coordinators in football, helped fuel Notre Dame fans' expectation that they might be in for some offensive fireworks. So far, with 100 points in three games (their most since 1992), they haven't been disappointed.

Junior Brady Quinn will be setting many Irish career records before he is through. He passed for a school-record five TDs in the Spartan shootout – surpassing the four he threw against the Huskies a year ago. Quinn also set career highs in attempts (60), completions (33) and yards (489), becoming the first Notre Dame QB to pass for over 400 yards in a game twice. He played all but two minutes in 2004, and has taken every snap so far this season.

Quinn has a horde of experienced receivers to go to. Junior WR Jeff Samardzija's three TD grabs last Saturday tied a school record, becoming the seventh receiver ever to do it. He has five touchdown receptions overall, fourth in the nation for wide receivers. Senior Anthony Fasano just passed Mark Bavarro on the Irish all-time receptions list for tight ends, and with two receptions will move into second on that list. Senior WR Maurice Stovall also enjoyed a career day against the Spartans with 178 receiving yards, while Matt Shelton had a career-best six receptions. Senior Rhema McKnight injured his knee at Ann Arbor, missed the MSU contest, and Weis would only say that he had a "slight procedure done" while noting that he would not be out the entire year. McKnight has led the Irish in receiving the last two years.

Experience also abounds at running back, where Darius Walker looks well on his way to his first 1,000-yard season after posting the finest freshman rushing year in Notre Dame history a year ago. He's led in the hole by fifth-year senior Rashon Powers-Neal, who is a fine receiver in his own right. Freshman Asaph Schwapp is being developed as a short-yardage back, but had a tough go against Michigan State.

It isn't a particularly big offensive line, but it's the same exact front as a year ago, led by tackles Ryan Harris and Mark LeVoir, both third-year starters. Harris was a freshman All-American two years back, and fifth-year senior guard Dan Stevenson will also receive some All-American attention.

Game Outlook: So far, it's been lights out when Notre Dame reaches the red zone. The only time they didn't score inside the opponent's 20 was when they ran the clock out at Pitt. The Irish are also 20-for-48 in third-down conversions and have converted on three fourth-downs – averaging 33 minutes of possession per game, they're not a quick-strike offense, but love to keep it for as long as they can with power running and play-action. Not a bad way to go.

TEAM STATS:  25.0 points, 382.7 yards 
             (126.0 rush, 256.7 pass)

TACKLES/TFL: Brandon Hoyte 29/8.0
             Tom Zbikowski 24/0.0
             Ambrose Wooden 20/0.5 

PASSES DEF/INT: Tom Zbikowski 4/2
                Ambrose Wooden 3/0
                Chinedum Ndukwe 2/1

SACKS:       Brandon Hoyte 3.0
             Victor Abiamiri 1.0
             Corey Mays 1.0 

After two pretty solid weeks, Weis felt that his defense might have been a bit too aggressive coming out against Michigan State, and the fundamentals suffered for it as the Irish fell behind by 21 points. He promises more time this week for his charges to get "back to the basics".

Only three regulars return from 2004, and the secondary is as green as grass. But up front is where the Notre Dame experience lies, led by defensive tackle Derek Landri and end Victor Abiamiri. Landri had 40 tackles a year ago from the nose, and Abiamiri's seven tackles against the Spartans was a career-best for the junior.

Fifth-year senior WIL linebacker Brandon Hoyte is the Irish' leading tackler, sacker, and TFL'er – this after a stellar 2004 in which he was in on 74 stops. Hoyte had 12 tackles at Michigan. One of Defensive coordinator Rick Minter's tweaks was the insertion of the "Apache" linebacker, and sophomore Maurice Crum has 17 tackles from it so far. Senior Corey Mays gets his first real shot at front-line time after a career mostly spent on special teams.

Ambrose Wooden and Mike Richardson were the only corners with ANY previous playing time going in to 2005 – and Wooden had six total minutes. Wooden does lead the team in passes defensed with three. Junior Tom Zibkowski is the unquestioned leader in the secondary. The strong safety has three career thefts and three forced fumbles, and is the team's second-leading tackler after recording 70 stops last season.

GAME OUTLOOK: It should be interesting to see how Washington fares against so many free-floating safeties.

PLACEKICKING:  D.J. Fitzpatrick 3-4 FG (long 48), 
               13-13 XP
PUNTING:       D.J. Fitzpatrick 16-41.8 (long 60), 
               .250 inside the 20

KICK RETURNS:  Tom Zbikowski 4-16.0 (long 23), 0 TD

PUNT RETURNS:  Justin Hoskins 4-23.0 (long 24), 0 TD
               Brandon Harris 3-17.7 (long 22), 0 TD

Fifth-year senior D.J. Fitzpatrick has handled both the kicking and punting duties the past three seasons, and has been quite consistent at both. He sports a career mark of 40 percent in dropping punts inside the opposing 20, and has made 26 of his 36 field goal attempts, with a best effort of 50 yards.

It's been three years since Notre Dame scored on any kind of kick return. Tom Zbikowski does average a first down on every punt return, and was named last week's Special Teams captain. The Irish have yet to block a kick in 2005, and have had one punt blocked.

GAME OUTLOOK: The Huskies finally blocked a kick last week, and both Knudsen and Douglas have had pretty good starts to the season. Both teams aren't exactly known for breaking the big one (the Irish did give up three kick returns for scores a year ago), and both have missed one scoring try off the tee, so it looks to be even. And for a Washington team that has been so moribund at special teams the past few seasons, that could be a good thing.


Notre Dame next visits Purdue after their tour of Seattle, which ends a four-out-of-five road stretch to begin 2005. The Fighting Irish will then enjoy five straight games (plus two bye weeks) basking under eye of the Golden Dome where they have hosted 180 consecutive sellouts. Meanwhile, it's still possible that Washington will run their home sellout streak to one, if about 1,000 more tickets get sold ... Saturday will also mark the first time a Notre Dame team has ever faced an ex-head coach (non-interim) of theirs on the opposing sideline ... Bellevue (Newport) WR Michael O'Hara is the only Washingtonian on the Irish roster ... Brady Quinn (143.1) and Isaiah Stanback (142.7) have nearly identical passing efficiency ratings. Quinn needs 726 yards to surpass Rick Mirer for third on the school's all-time yardage list ... Manase Hopoi's 3.5 sacks against Idaho – his first of the season - shot him up to a tie for 13th in the nation ... Sean Douglas has risen to ninth in NCAA Division 1-A punting average...

Rick Samek can be reached at RSAMEK1@COMCAST.NET Top Stories