Notre Dame begins the second half of its season on Saturday with a road game against the University of Washington.
The Irish are in search of their first victory away from home, while the hapless Huskies of Tyrone Willingham have yet to record a single win in any location. The two teams have met on six previous occasions, most recently in 2005, and Notre Dame has won them all.
This would be an ideal time for Willingham to quiet his critics and simultaneously gain a measure of revenge over the program that dismissed him after the 2004 season.
The vultures inhabiting the Pacific Northwest have been circling over the embattled coach since a poor finish last season, and a difficult schedule has not been accepted in most quarters as a satisfactory excuse for this year’s 0-6 start. Meanwhile, the Irish stand at 4-2 and are simply trying to get better.
Very few current starters have ties to Willingham, but the team needs no extra motivation after a disappointing loss to North Carolina. Notre Dame still harbors a flickering hope of playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game, but anything less than a comfortable win this week would be very damaging.
The Huskies will again be without injured quarterback and team leader Jake Locker, whose broken thumb has not sufficiently healed for him to reclaim the starting job. Ronnie Fouch has displayed a strong passing arm in his stead when he is not running for his life or getting sacked.
Despite several problems on the offensive side, it is Washington’s defense that has caused the most consternation in Seattle by surrendering 41 points per game.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Washington Defense
The Huskies are equally generous against the run and the pass. Opponents have rushed for an average of 233 yards and thrown for 250. Jimmy Clausen should have plenty of time to pick them apart if the Irish can block defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who is the only Washington player to record a sack this season.
Te’o-Nesheim, the Huskies' best defensive player, is joined by tackle Cameron Elisara and end Darrion Jones up front. The other tackle position in the Husky 4-3 alignment is shared between freshman Senio Kelemete and senior Johnnie Kirton.
Willingham has moved his linebackers around in an attempt to get his best three players on the field. He seems to have settled on Donald Butler and Mason Foster on the outside and Trenton Tuiasosopo in the middle. All are adequate but not exceptional.
In general, the Washington front seven does not apply significant pressure to its opponents, and they have paid a heavy price.
The secondary has been the primary weak point, as evidenced by the fact that three of its members lead the team in tackles and the group has only one interception (linebacker Foster has the only other one this year). The group is led by cornerback Mesphin Forrester, the only senior starter besides Tuiasosopo on the defensive side of the ball.
Notre Dame should be able to run the ball effectively and enjoy overall offensive success similar to the Purdue game. The Huskies will play hard, but they are frequently caught out of position and burned for long plays.
Overall, Washington does not have the talent and experience to match up against the Irish receivers and offensive linemen.
Washington’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
These two teams share one thing in common: Both have rushing attacks that are ranked in the bottom 10 percent in Division I football. The Huskies have a large offensive line, but it is not particularly strong or agile.
Running back has also been a revolving door for Willingham, although freshman tailback Terrance Dailey rushed for 102 yards in his college debut last week against Oregon State. Another freshman, David Freeman, has also played extensively and is the only other Husky besides Dailey and Locker to record more than 100 rushing yards this season.
Fouch has had some success in his two starts since Locker went down, but he has only completed 50 percent of his passes.
Washington likes to throw the ball deep, and they have some speed to make it work as long as Fouch has time in the pocket. Receivers D’Andre Goodwin and Devin Aguilar have been productive and are a threat to score on any team, as is Alvin Logan if he is healthy enough to play this week.
The absence of Locker’s dual-threat capability and a poor running game have made things difficult for Washington. Fouch is a pocket passer who has learned to throw on the run out of necessity. It will be interesting to see if Notre Dame’s rush defense, which has been soft on several occasions this season, can force the Huskies into another one-dimensional performance.
It would be a mistake to think that Fouch cannot put points on the board even if the defense knows what is coming. He reminds me of North Carolina’s Cameron Sexton, who proved to be a more accurate passer than the Irish had anticipated. The key for Notre Dame, as always, is to pressure Fouch into poor throws.
Washington’s return and cover teams have been consistently outperformed by opponents this year, and the Irish hope to add to their misery. Aguilar and Goodwin return punts, while Jordan Polk has been the primary kick return man. Polk averages less than 20 yards with a best of 38.
Kicking has been an issue for both teams. Brandon Walker hit his only attempt against Carolina, but Coach Charlie Weis did not have sufficient confidence to call on him late in that same game.
The Huskies employ both Ryan Perkins and Jared Ballman to perform the kicking chores, with Perkins handling PATs and Ballman getting the nod for long field goal attempts. Both are a combined three out of eight in three-pointers this season.
Both teams have weaknesses that can be exploited, but the Irish have better weapons and strengths that the Huskies cannot match. Willingham appears to be a lame duck, and the schedule does not get easier as Washington will travel to face USC in Los Angeles next week.
Notre Dame can help itself by getting off to a fast start and putting their hosts in a hole. The Irish are coming off a bye week and may be lethargic after the long flight, but these are not valid excuses against this opponent.
The most important aspect for Notre Dame and Clausen is to avoid the turnovers that plagued them in their previous road outings. If the Irish break even or win this battle, they will emerge with a comfortable win.
Clausen should have another fine performance despite the absence of David Grimes, who is suffering from back spasms. Duval Kumara, who has played well recently after a slow start, will probably fill in. The Irish should otherwise be ready to go.
The coaching staff has engaged in self-scouting during the bye week and will presumably correct some of the defensive mistakes that have enabled opponents to run for considerable yardage. It remains to be seen whether or not Notre Dame can improve its anemic pass rush.
Here are a few questions that will help determine the outcome.
Which team will shake off its season-long ineptitude on the ground and run the ball with authority?
Will Fouch have enough time in the pocket to hurt the Irish?
Will Notre Dame be able to start fast after a bye week?
Can Washington’s porous defense force Irish turnovers? Which team will get a boost from its special teams?
Will Notre Dame’s defense demonstrate improvement after two weeks of self-scouting?
Washington is quite similar to Notre Dame’s 2007 edition, which is to say they are very young and very bad. Twelve freshmen have played extensively this year, and nine have started at least one game. It’s also no surprise that they do not appear to be well coached given Willingham’s track record.
After last week’s game, the Husky coach said, "The ball game tonight was a game in which we didn't make enough big plays, gave up too many big plays, didn't create any turnovers and gave turnovers. If those things could have been avoided....” This same statement will probably be appropriate on Saturday evening as well.
Notre Dame 38, Washington 20